La. FD launches mental health, addictions response program to reduce suicides, ODs
The St. Tammany Fire Protection District pilot program will use a behavioral health center specialist for crisis calls
By Alex Lubben
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
ST. TAMMANY PARISH, La. — Providing emergency mental health care in St. Tammany Parish has largely fallen on the backs of law enforcement officers, many of whom aren’t trained to provide it. That may be changing.
A Slidell area fire district announced a pilot program on Wednesday to provide crisis support to law enforcement and the fire department, and route 911 calls related to mental health or addiction to a specialist who can help people get the care they need. The six-month program is in partnership with the Ness Center, which operates a facility on the Northlake Behavioral Health Center campus in Mandeville.
“We want to give the citizens of St. Tammany Parish that are in crisis an opportunity to get treatment and get care,” said Fire District 1 Chief Chris Kaufmann. “Our goal for this pilot program is to get individuals with mental health issues that necessary care as quickly as possible to prevent suicides and overdose deaths.”
One specialist, employed by the Ness Center, will be housed at the fire district’s office in Slidell. In the event of an emergency, that specialist will be deployed along with the officers responding to a 911 call. Ideally, the person in need will be routed away from emergency rooms or jails, and guided toward resources that can help them get better.
Flanked by police officers, local hospital administrators, healthcare officials and political leaders, Kaufmann sounded a hopeful note — and one that was tinged with the first-hand experience of the loss the community has faced over the last few years.
“In 2021, we had 49 suicides in St. Tammany Parish,” he said. “In ’22, we had 47 suicides.” There were 127 overdose deaths last year alone, he added.
“That data itself is speaking volumes,” he added. “I want to give the citizens of St. Tammany Parish that are in crisis the opportunity to get treatment and get care.”
Because the program is being test-run, it’s only available to 100,000 of St. Tammany’s residents in the parish’s 8th and 9th wards. Its success will be monitored closely and, if all goes well, Kaufmann hopes it will expanded throughout the parish. The model, if it works, could even be adopted by the rest of the state, he said.
The program kicks off at a time when funding for mental health programs in St. Tammany has ebbed and flowed dramatically. The financial troubles date back to the closure and subsequent privatization of the Southeast Louisiana Hospital in Mandeville in 2012. Since then, the parish government has made efforts to restore mental health care in St. Tammany, with only ephemeral success.
The Safe Haven Crisis Receiving Center, which aimed to provide some of the services the public mental health hospital once provided, shuttered last year when it lost its operator due to a lack of funding. It has not reopened.