Gulf Bend Center expands mental health services


Across the country, mental health advocates are working with law enforcement to find safer, more effective and humane ways to help people with a mental illness.

Gulf Bend Center recently started a mental health officer program in Victoria, taking a big, first step toward improving mental health services for our community.

The Gulf Bend Community Collaborative worked on a plan to address many of those local gaps in service by seeking state funding. Gulf Bend officials found a way to fund a pilot program by renegotiating a state grant that runs through August. The program funds two specially trained officers and a law enforcement navigator.

Executive director Jeff Tunnell said they hope the contract will be extended and that the program has already yielded positive results. At a recent board of trustees meeting, officials reported that the team conducted three screenings, 13 wellness checks, issued three warrants for psychiatric hospitalization and transported two people to psychiatric hospitals and one person to a psychiatric appointment.

In four short weeks, the team of just two officers - one at the Victoria Police Department and one at the Victoria County Sheriff's Office - have made quite an impact.

Filling yet another gap, the navigator will focus on continuity of care. She has access to client files and works to ensure an easier transition after mental health patients are released from jail. This includes getting clients to go to their next medical appointment and working with community partners so they are re-enrolled for benefits and can find housing and counseling.

Tunnell said Gulf Bend has also contracted with an Austin hospital for inpatient beds. This is a big improvement because it streamlines the process when a person requires hospitalization and allows them to be closer to home.

When our community's leaders take a hard, honest look at our biggest challenges, amazing things can happen.

This model of policing started almost 30 years ago when the Memphis Police Department pioneered a Crisis Intervention Team program and trained its officers on how to handle calls that involve a person with mental illness.

What led to this model was actually public outcry from a tragedy. Memphis police responded to a 27-year-old man in the midst of a mental health crisis who was threatening suicide with a knife. Agitated, the man moved toward the officers and was shot eight times. This spurred a community task force comprised of law enforcement, mental health and addiction professionals and advocates. Those who volunteered for the Crisis Intervention Team learned verbal de-escalation techniques, scenario-based training and spent time with people who had gone through a mental health crisis.

Law enforcement agencies across the country are trying to increase safety in encounters and, when appropriate, divert those with mental illnesses from the criminal justice system to mental health treatment.

Our local program shows promise and, hopefully, will extend into our surrounding counties. Kudos to Gulf Bend for working with city and county officials to find solutions.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.

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