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Wisconsin program sends mental health experts to handle crises

Posted at 12:57 PM, Oct 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-05 14:57:59-04

In Madison, Wisconsin, a new pilot program is trying to take mental health crisis situations out of the hands of police and put them into the hands of trained mental health experts.

There are no sirens or intimidating markings on response vehicles, just a simple logo to let the community know they care. It reads: Community Alternative Response Emergency Services.

911 can now dispatch a unit specifically trained to deescalate mental health or behavioral crises. Teams come in pairs, including a paramedic and a mental health expert.

"Mental illness and behavioral health, however you want to call it, is just as normal as physical illness," mental health expert Shequila Galvez said.

Yet, people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by law enforcement. This pilot program aims to reduce that number.

Paramedic Paco Bonnin believes people need someone they can trust when they're going through a crisis.

"As an individual who struggles with PTSD and depression, I've had my life affected by the suicide of loved ones," Bonnin said. "So, when I go into these calls, I'm going in as much as a medical professional as I am going in as a peer."

Madison resident William Valent has a verified mental health diagnosis. He says people like him are often seen as outsiders.

"I'll either be seen as a crazy person who lives on the streets or a criminal who lives on the streets," Valent said.

But it's compassion and active listening that the CARES program brings to the table.

"The one thing that I see commonly across all these different calls is that there's a need for connection, for people to be heard," Bonnin said.

Some 100 miles north of Madison, in Appleton, Wisconsin, a behavioral health officer has helped reduce emergency detentions of people appearing too dangerous to themselves or others by 41%.

In Eugene, Oregon, the CAHOOTS intervention team saves the city about $8.5 million annually by reducing police call volume.

Madison felt it was worth the annual $600,000 for a unit that advocates for the patient. And the CARES unit is not only there for emergencies, but wellness checks and daily follow-ups too, turning what could be a deadly outcome into a peaceful one.

This story was originally published by Cat Sandoval at Newsy.