Senator praises Dallas mental health crisis response program
The RIGHT (Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team) pilot program utilizes counselors and paramedics to better respond to mental health calls
By Samantha J. Gross
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — A 911 call came in a few months ago about a 19-year-old punching a 17-year-old sibling in their southern Dallas home.
The 19-year-old had traumatic brain injuries, and the teens' mother was “low-functioning,” police said. A 23-year-old with severe autism who lived in the home was neither being cared for nor fed, they said.
A year ago, police likely would have arrested the 19-year-old on a family violence charge and referred the rest of the family to social services.
But today, things are different. Instead of making an arrest and passing off the case, clinicians called intellectual disability services and a local food bank came to provide food for the malnourished family.
The credit for the change goes to the RIGHT (Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team) pilot program that kicked off in January in southern Dallas. It pairs counselors with officers to better respond to mental health calls.
The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, which is funding the three-year program alongside the W.W. Caruth Jr. Foundation, hosted a discussion Friday afternoon about the program and shared its success with Sen. John Cornyn.
The Texas Republican takes a special interest in mental health. In 2016, he backed legislation that became law for reforms to the mental health and criminal justice system. It helps identify mentally ill offenders with pre-trial screenings, provides need-based treatment and develops post-release plans including outpatient treatment programs.
“Law enforcement can't be the end-all, be-all when people present an array of challenges,” Cornyn said Friday.
The pilot initiative partners mental health counselors from Parkland Memorial Hospital and paramedics from Dallas Fire-Rescue and south central patrol officers.
The team works like this: If a dispatcher notices someone may need mental health help, that officer can call on the RIGHT Care team for backup. When that happens, three people will arrive to a call — a police officer, paramedic and mental health clinician. The team also has clinicians at 911 call centers to triage mental health emergencies and allow Dallas Fire-Rescue staff to focus on other calls. Mental health professionals are tasked with following up on cases and ensuring that people are accessing the care they need.
B.J. Wagner, senior director at the Meadows, said since the program kicked off Jan. 29, ambulance calls for mental services in southern Dallas have decreased by 23 percent. When mental health emergency calls come in, clinicians and specialists use their expertise to talk a person down and free up Dallas’ 42 ambulances to respond to other calls.
This type of program is rather unique to Dallas, she said.
“We don’t see a lot of places who do this type of work with city and county entities together,” she said.
Wagner added that of the 709 mental health emergency calls fielded since January, just 3 percent ended in arrest.
In the first three months of the program, the clinician's diversion of calls saved the police force about two weeks of salaried work.
“We want public safety to be our first priority, not law enforcement,” Assistant Chief David Pughes said Friday. “The police officer is just there to make sure the paramedic and clinician are safe.”
Dallas council member Tennell Atkins, who represents areas of southern Dallas, said the program is a start, but that more work needs to be done.
Atkins turned to the mayor and the senator and asked: “What do we do after?”
“We need this all over the city,” Atkins said, “Our resources are drained. ... We need more money.”
Cornyn wants to see the program expand beyond southern Dallas, noting that it could be considered a model for city, state and even nationwide programs.
“What's really important from a government standpoint is to have models of things that actually work,” he said. “We try to make sure we're more efficient and effective when it comes to using scarce taxpayer dollars.”
Cornyn said Friday's discussion emphasized to him how often people with mental illness get stuck in a cycle of jail time and hospital visits.
“That was really eye-opening and probably a slice of life in our communities that most people were unaware of,” he said. “People need a safe place to live, and if they don't have people to help them recover and get better, then they're basically just going to stay the way they are.”
Copyright 2018 The Dallas Morning News