MORGAN COUNTY – When someone in Morgan County needs help during a mental health crisis, it’s often the police who show up. Tasha Coppinger says it shouldn’t be the only option.
Coppinger, who works as organizing director at the nonpartisan nonprofit Hoosier Action, has spent the past few months meeting with community members in Martinsville and across the county to learn more about how local communities are being impacted by mental health issues amid rising substance use are using levels.
Coppinger is part of a group of local organizers trying to mobilize a crisis response unit to deal with mental health crises in Morgan County.
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“If someone is having a depressive episode, a psychotic episode, or is really struggling with their mental health, they now have the option to call the ambulance, call the police, or just drive to the emergency room,” Coppinger said.
Coppinger said she heard testimony from scores of county residents who were turned away from hospitals despite having a mental health crisis. This was often because they were not perceived as a direct threat to themselves or others.
“So if someone is struggling with their mental health there is someone they can call who is a mobile crisis response unit where they can speak to someone on the hotline and then mental health professionals will come and come to their home and get him the resources and support that they need right now,” she said.
The push for the Emergency Crisis Response Unit is part of a broader effort to provide more mental health resources for the county.
The importance of crisis intervention
Coppinger stressed that the creation of a mental health crisis response unit was not intended to undermine the capabilities of local police departments.
Police, she said, simply aren’t trained in the same way as a social worker or resource officer to help someone experiencing a mental health emergency. During an escalating moment of a real crisis, the presence of the police can add an extra layer of distress to a person, even if the officer is only there to help.
“If someone is in a crisis and they feel like they’re going to get in trouble, get thrown in jail or have an argument or something like that, that’s not going to help the situation,” Coppinger said. “I think the police are often not trained for this. I spoke to someone who was a civil servant for years who said, ‘We’re not trained to deal with things like this. We don’t know how to intervene in someone’s mental health crisis.'”
Studies by the National Alliance on Mental Illness show that up to 15% of calls to the police involve someone dealing with a mental illness. In addition, one in four people with a serious mental illness has been arrested by the police at some point in their lives. An estimated two in five adults in prison or jail have a history of mental illness.
As a result, more police departments statewide are having officers attend crisis intervention training to meet the responsibilities of often being the de facto first responders to mental health emergencies.
The Greenwood Police Department began sending its officers for crisis intervention training in 2020, while the Columbus Police Department initiated a similar training protocol last November.
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The local reaction to the possibility of setting up a crisis response unit has so far been mostly positive.
“We’ve been knocking on doors for most of the summer and I’d say every single person we’ve spoken to about this idea is supportive,” Coppinger said. “I think the mental health issues in the community are so widespread. I don’t think I knock on a single door without hearing a story of how someone has been affected.”
“He had the most beautiful smile”
Martinsville resident Marianne Schell supports the idea of having a crisis response unit, saying it is badly needed to address mental health issues and drug use in the county. Schell is personally affected by the drug-taking waves that are hitting cities like Martinsville and others across the state.
She lost her nephew Robert to a fentanyl overdose. He was 32 years old.
“He had the most beautiful smile in the world and a very pleasant personality. He must have had trauma as a kid because it showed, but I never addressed it,” Schell said.
Schell said she believes a crisis response unit can help save lives by making critical resources available to people in times of need.
“You don’t have to be confronted with cops who have other things to do because the police just seem to escalate it without doing anything,” Schell said. “They just show up and just can’t handle it, but a trained therapist can and they can handle it. But there is no place for these people because they are all full. There’s no place for them to get medication to get better. There is no one they can talk to except people walking around who really can’t help them.”
Schell is convinced that if her nephew had had a resource like the crisis team at his disposal, it could have saved his life.
“I really think it would have helped him. He would have had a safe place to go while he worked out his problems,” she said.
Addiction and psychological crises often go hand in hand. In 2021, Indiana recorded the highest number of overdoses in state history, as an estimated 2,755 Hoosiers died from a drug overdose. Drug overdoses in the United States topped 100,000 annually last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I’ve lost friends to overdoses. I have friends who are currently taking substances, and so often it’s self-medication because they have nowhere else to turn,” Coppinger said. “So what I would like to see is that this crisis response center is a thing that can serve people like that, people who are struggling with drug use and provide them with a range of resources.”
The next step involves working with elected officials, including district commissioners, to see if the district is willing to fund such a project and if it is financially feasible.
According to Coppinger, early talks between supporters of the crisis response units and elected officials have so far been positive.
“It sounds like there is interest and support for it. The problem we face is money and what it takes to fund it and where that funding will come from. That’s what we’re trying to figure out now,” she said. “I know we have a lot of money that the county has from the American Rescue Plan. I think a pilot program for that because it’s not ongoing funding, but a year-long pilot program would be a great way to spend that money and get it rolling. We don’t yet know if the county has the energy for it.
A poll and petition for the initiative can be found online at hoosieraction.org.