Overland Park mental health task force to prioritize co-responder expansion discussion

Co-responders are mental health professionals who accompany police on crisis calls in which mental health might be a factor. The idea is to get expert assessment and referrals so the person involved can get appropriate care. Photo credit Mike Frizzell.

A discussion of the co-responder program will be the first item on the agenda for the newly created Overland Park mental health task force when it meets next month.

Councilmember Chris Newlin put expansion of the program at the top of the to-do list because of approaching budget deadlines. The 2021 budget will be written in the next couple of months. Newlin chaired the first virtual meeting of the 14-member task force Wednesday.

Co-responders are mental health professionals who accompany police on crisis calls in which mental health might be a factor. The idea is to get expert assessment and referrals so the person involved can get appropriate care. Newlin suggested the committee look at expanding the hours of staffing for that program and how much it might cost.

The city council formed the task force in February after being urged by Sheila Albers to address issues of transparency and crisis training for first responders. Albers’s son John was killed by an officer in 2018 after police were called about the 17-year-old’s mental state. Albers has since founded JoCo United, a non-profit promoting safety, transparency and mental health response.

Training for the police crisis intervention team has been one of Albers’ priorities. The task force will look at crisis training, but also has a broader purview to assess the city’s other mental health needs.

Members of the special committee, who come from a variety of careers and experiences with mental health care, threw out ideas for topics the group should investigate during its 18-month tenure. Crisis intervention training and trauma informed care were among the most discussed. The group may also explore ideas on how to help people affected by the spread of COVID-19.

Some committee members said they’d like to see crisis training expanded from the police force to include emergency medics and the fire department.

Jan Marrs, a human resources employee at an accounting firm, said she hopes the training could also provide help to families so they can learn how to avoid having to go back to crisis care after the situation has stabilized. Most insurance covers no more than five days for mental health, a fact that distressed some on the committee.

“If we saw anybody with a broken leg on the side of the road not one person wouldn’t stop to help,” said psychologist Greg Nawalanic. But people still want to hide mental health problems because of the continuing stigma, he said. “There’s a shame around it and it’s bizarre because it’s literally your brain which is a physical part of your body. But we’ve created this weird disconnect.”

Trauma informed training also should be encouraged for people who work with the public, some committee members said. Trauma informed training is about effective ways to work with people who are reacting to past difficulties, possibly including abuse. Newlin said training could help city departments like public works and codes enforcement, where employees deal with the public on a regular basis.