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Monroe County Hits Reset on its Response to Mental Health Crises

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Dr. April Aycock, director of the Monroe County Office of Mental Health, at a news conference Feb. 18, 2021 about the county’s plan to address mental health and substance use disorder. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

Helping people avoid a crisis is a priority of a newly released plan by Monroe County to address the needs of people living with issues related to mental health or substance use disorder.

But if a person does fall into crisis, law enforcement no longer would be the default response. Rather, mental health professionals may be sent. They could handle the situation on their own, calling police only if necessary.

Once the crisis has passed, the follow-up by the appropriate professionals or agencies would get the individual connected to services that would promote recovery and prevent a future crisis.

The overall goal is to better align services, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello said at a news conference Feb. 18 as he announced the Monroe County Mental Health & Substance Use Disorder 90-Day Task Force Priorities and Action Plan.

“Monroe County is one of those places that is program rich but results poor, sometimes,” he said. “When it comes to mental health services, we have a lot of great agencies that are working and spending and a lot of resources, but it’s not quite connecting in the right way to be able to help people … .”

Bello convened the task force in September after the death of Daniel Prude with instructions to examine how the county can address systemic barriers by looking at how it spends the $40 million allocated to mental health. The task force and associated work group were made up of representatives from government, health care, law enforcement, social service agencies, mental health advocacy organizations and the city-county RASE Commission.

The 90 days refers to the time the task force was given to come up with short-term strategies to address immediate gaps in how the county responded to a mental health crisis and put those strategies in the context of changing a system to meet the needs of Black, Latino and indigenous communities.

Bello said the plan is part of ongoing work to identify short- and long-term reforms to improve how the county delivers mental health, domestic violence, child protective and other social services to residents.

Bello also announced the appointment of Dr. April Aycock as director of the county Office of Mental Health. Aycock, who holds a doctorate in executive leadership from St. John Fisher College, is a licensed mental health counselor and master-level credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor.

Aycock will be responsible for implementing the strategies in the task force report and lead the county’s efforts in connecting people to services.

She said there are more than 300 services and dozens of providers. One issue is educating residents about options and another issue is making it seamless for people to get help. “We have to look at it as a system issue and work with all of our providers and hear from our community.”

Part of the task force plan involves using 211 instead of 911 to triage calls, but it won’t necessarily be up to the individual to decide which number to use.

Monroe County Undersheriff Korey Brown said 911 dispatchers can send a call to 211.

“We don’t want to go if we don’t have to go,” he said. “If there’s no reason for a police officer to respond to something, we’re great not responding. We want people to get the help they need.”

The plan doesn’t prevent law enforcement from responding, but it calls for the alternative approaches when suitable.

The plan also called for expanding the county’s Forensic Intervention Team, which works with law enforcement on calls involving mental health. Currently, the FIT team is dispatched by police, but they could be sent independently. The plan seeks two additional FIT members, bringing the total to seven, and becoming a 24/7 operation.

The FIT team underwent a leadership change last year, and it is the subject of a special meeting of the Monroe County Legislature at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 23. Legislators want to know more about what some say are deficiencies in the use and deployment of the team.

The meeting will be streamed via a link on monroecounty.gov/legislature.

The county also will work with the city on its Person in Crisis team, including providing support when the crisis team is unable to respond.

The plan included a calendar through 2021 to mark key activities and milestones. Those include building the infrastructure, building community awareness and support, expanding dispatch options and collecting data on each goal of the report.

Melanie Funchess, an advocate for mental health services, said the response to a person seeking care needs to be culturally responsive.

“There is a lot to be done,” she said. “We did not get to this place overnight and we’re not going to get back out of it overnight. We’re going to work together as a county to address the needs of the peopl;e that need to be addressed.”