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What could response to mental health crisis look like?

Patti Singer

Melanie Funchess, an advocate for culturally competent responses to mental health needs. File photo

Who should respond when a person is in distress?

That may be the most-asked question in Rochester since Sept. 2, when the public learned that Daniel Prude had died in March after an encounter with police. Joe Prude had called 911, worried his brother would harm himself.

The short-term result of that call was captured on police body-worn camera video that showed officers restraining the naked man and led to a month of protests for systemic change in policing, mental health care and racial justice.

The long-term result is a vision yet to be realized.

“What I want to have happen is when somebody calls for help for someone in mental health distress, it is actually help – competent help, culturally responsive help that shows up,” said Melanie Funchess, director of Community Engagement and Family Support Services for the Mental Health Association.

“The devil is in the details,” she said. “How we get there. How we fund it. Who decides. All those things have to be worked out. We will make some mistakes along the way. It’s the nature of the beast. … We’ve got to start somewhere and let’s go and do the best that we can.”

In the month since Daniel Prude’s family released details of the response from the Rochester Police Department, efforts at reform have started.

The city announced it was moving its Family Crisis Intervention Team out of the Rochester Police Department and into the Department of Youth and Recreational Services. It also put $300,000 into the Forensic Intervention Team, which partners clinicians from the Monroe County Office of Mental Health with law enforcement agencies to respond to crisis calls and connect people to services.

The county is spending $360,000 more on FIT so the team can operate around the clock. The head of clinical and forensic services at the county’s Office of Mental Health resigned after an announcement that the county was reviewing correspondence between FIT and law enforcement. The county did not respond to two requests for information about changes to FIT approach.

But FIT reinforces the police-centered model, according to advocates such as Funchess.

The problems with that approach are at least two-fold. Police still respond first and officers may not be trained in the range of emotional issues they encounter. Additionally, officers have to recognize they are unequipped and they need to call for assistance from a clinician.

Funchess would like to see the situation reversed: The call gets dispatched first to a clinician, and that mental health professional decides whether law enforcement is needed. However, people such as former Mayor Bill Johnson have expressed concern about the safety of the clinician who may get there before law enforcement can secure the scene.

But advocates argue that a mental health crisis is not criminal behavior, and someone trained in a range of emotional states can deescalate a situation.

Reversing the order in which professionals respond may take a total reset in thinking about who can keep a community safe.

“We have trained our community for generations, in case of emergency call 911,” said Funchess, who is a community advocate and member of the Greater Rochester Black Agenda Group. “911 is embedded with police. We have taught people to call a system that is flawed. Daniel Prude is not the first flaw.”

Funchess said the reimagined response is part of a larger conversation about overall mental health needs of Black people. She also said that the same actions exhibited by Black people and by white people are viewed differently.

She also said the discussion needs to decouple the idea that people in mental health distress are necessarily violent.

“What I’m saying is that we need to make sure that we’re having a complete conversation” in order to create adequate solutions. She said that Black mental health professionals need to be involved in creating culturally competent care. She said the effort has to be intentional and deliberate and include the necessary perspectives.

“The changes we’re talking about making are on a police, program and practice level,” she said. “If we’re able to do the things that need to be done, these changes will affect the way that mental health looks in our community for a generation.”