Officials are working to produce programs that could change how we respond to mental health crises, suicide attempts and addiction across Winnebago County.
Logan Lundberg tried to kill himself days after leading a peaceful march through downtown, demanding an end to police brutality.
Lundberg, 22, said he struggles with bipolar disorder and depression despite his emergence as a prominent activist in the local civil rights movement.
The wrong thought can send him spiraling into an emotional abyss. Lundberg said he has planned or attempted suicide more than two dozen times. The times he’s been saved by family members who have called 911 for help made him “feel like I was a criminal,” as he was placed inside a squad car.
“It makes it 10 times harder to reach out when you think that if you reach out, you are going to be arrested, put into a squad car and sent to a mental hospital,” Lundberg said. “It makes people more likely to seek help if they have been treated in a respectful manner.”
Now he is joining a chorus of voices who say that an over-reliance on law enforcement officers to respond to mental health crises can discourage those who need help from seeking it out.
Expert observers and members of the public alike have expressed concerns about the breadth of expectations placed on police officers in Rockford and across the country. The challenges become especially acute when officers respond to situations where mental illness is the underlying issue.
Rockford and Winnebago County officials appear willing to listen. They are pursuing new programs that could improve how the Rockford region responds to calls involving suicide, mental illness and addiction.
These are pervasive issues in Rockford: In the 12 months before Aug. 18, Rockford police responded to 842 incidents involving suicidal or despondent people — on average, more than two a day. Police also responded to 469 drug overdoses and 26 suicides in that time period.
Mayor Tom McNamara said the pilot programs are aimed at reducing the amount of potentially volatile contact those who suffer from mental illness have with police and emergency services.
“We have heard loud and clear that there is a lot of ways we can improve,” McNamara said.
Details about the programs are a work in progress.
However, one contemplated program would work to connect those suffering with mental illness in Rockford with services before it becomes a full-blown crisis. Another, in conjunction with the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department and other agencies, would work to improve crisis intervention countywide.
Winnebago County Chief Deputy Rick Ciganek said that while he worked for the Elgin Police Department, he helped to establish a Collaborative Crisis Services Unit about a year ago.
In what is known as a co-responder model, specially trained mental health crisis counselors respond with police to help people in crisis. They also do follow up visits to make sure patients are connected with the mental health, addiction or human services they need.
Although data wasn’t immediately available, Elgin officials said having trained crisis intervention personnel respond alongside police is helping to prevent police from having to use force. It is also helping to connect the mentally ill, drug addicted and homeless with services.
Ciganek would not say if a similar program is being considered for Rockford and Winnebago County.
However, he did say the approval of a half-cent mental health safety tax that could produce $13 million a year in funding for mental health services managed by a mental health board, could lead to new opportunities for better responses throughout Winnebago County.
The board is conducting an analysis to determine what kind of services are missing in Rockford and Winnebago County and how best to invest in mental health services.
Ciganek warned that although some would like to see police removed from the mental health crisis response equation all together, that is unlikely. The reality is, crisis interventionists won’t want to respond without a police officer present, Ciganek said.
“What mental health crisis looks like in reality is very different from what people think is happening,” Ciganek said. “It is often times dealing with people who are very violent and not thinking rationally. It’s not as simple as sending a mental health care worker in to say ‘Hey, let’s talk.’ The term ’mental health crisis’ is a way oversimplification of a very complicated issue.”
Ounce of prevention
A traditional emergency services response to a mental health crisis with lights and sirens from police and fire vehicles tend to increase the anxiety of someone experiencing a mental health crisis, Rockford Fire Chief Derek Bergsten said.
Taking a patient in a psychological crisis to an emergency room with bustling activity, bright lights and noise, can also aggravate the anxiety level, Bergsten said.
Preventing a patient with mental illness from reaching a crisis could be the best way to avoid encounters with police and trips to the emergency room.
Rockford Fire Department personnel responded to more than 1,000 behavioral health calls so far this year, representing 8.2% of all its calls for service. Ambulances so far this year have transported 943 patients to mental health facilities, on average about 2.6 per day.
Combined with drug overdoses, mental health calls for service represent about 17% of all ambulance calls, Bergsten said.
Bergsten said the city is working to create a pilot program that could work with patients who suffer from mental illness and addiction in a way that is similar to the city’s community paramedic program. The program, in partnership with SwedishAmerican Hospital, focuses on home visits with patients with chronic illnesses.
It has significantly cut down on repeated emergency room visits, Bergsten said.
A similar program that focuses on patients with mental illness could prevent them from reaching a crisis in the first place.
“Once you are doing an urgent response, they are already in crisis mode,” Bergsten said. “Just like with our community paramedics, we are able to identify people who are going to have a higher risk of being admitted to the emergency room and the hospital by calling 911 by looking at data. We feel confident we can do the same thing with mental health patients.”
This story is the result of a partnership between the Rockford Register Star and WNIJ, with additional support from the Solutions Journalism Network.