COLORADO SPRINGS – UCHealth has joined forces with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office to form what’s known as the BHCON program – pronounced “Beacon”. The Behavior Health Connect Unit is a five-year pilot program that pairs law enforcement with behavioral health experts for a coordinated response to emergency calls determined to have a behavioral health issue.
Deputy John Hammond says, “We go to all calls that involve crisis, or are mental-health related. We try to go to those calls and handle the crisis and divert them from jail if it’s an underlying mental health issue.”
The BHCON unit responds to crisis calls in real time, which means the first step is for Deputy Hammond to make sure elements of danger are removed before he brings in his partner, Robin Schawe.
Deputy Hammond explains, “I go in and make sure the scene is safe, then introduce Robin, who works for UCHealth, and she does the clinician part.”
Robin is an licensed professional counselor and licensed associate counselor. As a mental health clinician for UCHealth in this capacity, she is literally on the front lines with law enforcement.
Robin says, “After they have made sure everything is safe, they introduce me to who we are working with, and that I work for UCHealth and I’m a clinician — that I don’t work for the Sheriff’s Office, and that helps them to calm down knowing I’m not an officer.”
While this job comes with risks for Robin, it also comes with great reward. Robin says meeting people on their turf allows great insight into the possibility of a mental health issue. “I like being in their element to see what their life is like. It helps me to determine what they need – not just talking about it and hoping they are being honest. I don’t think about the possible danger, it’s a job and it’s my passion to help people so it’s what I do on a daily basis.”
The main goal of the BHCON program is to get people with mental health issues the help they need, rather than putting them in the criminal justice system. Hammondsays, “We do the evaluation, the transport, and get them into a facility if needed, and then do follow-up. The follow-up can last for weeks, months or a year after the call, to make sure they have a plan in place to deal with the crisis or mental health challenges they face.”
At the heart of this unit’s success is the ability Deputy Hammond and Robin have to walk someone with mental health needs, step by step to whatever resources they need. That ability is because of a large amount of support the unit gets from many vested partners in the community.
“UCHealth Memorial is amazing. When we need the hospital they are there for us, welcome us and get us what we need. AspenPointe has been wonderful and we can take clients there, if they don’t need a hold. They can get therapy and the support they need. Peakview and Cedar Springs have been outstanding (to us) in terms of placement when we do put someone on an M1 hold. NAMI also backs us and provides us with many resources and anything we need.”
Now mental health problems that may have been missed can be caught and treated, instead of law enforcement only having the choice between taking someone to jail or ignoring a mental health issue.
Robin and Deputy Hammond responded to 77 calls in July and August in El Paso County. The vast majority of calls were welfare checks. Other calls were for disturbances, domestic violence, suicide, harassment and intoxication. Fifty-sixpeople were provided either successful on-scene services or were transported to a mental health care provider or the hospital for appropriate mental-health care.
Robin remembers, “One gentlemen was having a hard time – he’s a veteran and was going through some rough patches. He did some stuff at home that could have been chargeable, but it was just minor stuff and he would have been let go and that would not have fixed the problem. Instead we got him some help. We were able to get some services set up for him, and I think he will get the mental health help he needs and now has the support of VA. We are going to follow up on him and his family,also, to make sure everything is OK. In the long run, he will be better than if an officer just charged him and nothing happened to help him.”
In the process of the BHCON team doing their job, the general public is also served because once they take over a complicated scene, other responding units can be cleared. Deputy Hammond says, “We are able to utilize this unit and put other sources back in play. We can put other patrols back into service for high-priority calls, and calls that are in progress. We are allowing ambulance or fire to get back into service, that way they can tend to car accidents, or fires and we can stay in the call from the very beginning to end. That can range from 30 minutes to 4 to 5 hours.”