- Deschutes County
- The Deschutes County Stabilization Center welcomed its first clients this week.
City and county governments across the U.S. are currently discussing new partnerships and programs to overhaul the criminal justice system and defund the police. This comes in response to worldwide protests against the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis and other incidents of police brutality. Some people in the reform movement believe that it would make more sense for someone in distress to work with a mental health professional rather than an armed police officer who could potentially hurt them or may be perceived as threatening, according to Vox.
In Deschutes County, the new stabilization center adopts this philosophy by providing a place for people to go besides jail when they have mental breakdowns or commit petty crimes.
How it works
The stabilization center is located next to the Deschutes County Adult Jail near the Bend fire station off Highway 20. Anyone experiencing a mental health crisis is welcome to walk in Monday through Friday from 8am-4pm. Family, friends and community partners can also bring people in. The center will also serve as a place to recover for people who have been picked up by the police or sheriff’s office, as well as an alternative to staying at the emergency department.
The center has been years in the making and was funded through Deschutes County and the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, the Central Oregon Health Council and the City of Bend. The project won millions in federal grants for operations, staffing and construction and received private donations.
The Bend Police Department reported that mental health calls have skyrocketed over the last decade. In 2010, BPD coded 650 calls related to mental health. In 2019, mental health calls spiked to nearly 2,000, a 12.6% increase from the year prior.
It’s both expensive and time consuming for law enforcement officers to respond to a surge in mental health calls. Further, an armed officer in a uniform without psychological or social service expertise may not always be the most appropriate person to de-escalate a mental health crisis.
The stabilization center offers a counterpoint: It is staffed by 24 mental health professionals, including all the people who currently work in the Crisis and Forensic Diversion teams. These workers run programs to assist people with mental health issues either before they end up in jail, or as they are released.
Who it helps
Holly Harris is the crisis program manager for Deschutes County Health Services and has led the team working on the stabilization center for years. She explained one example of a fictional candidate that could benefit from the stabilization center named Bill:
Bill has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but he refuses to take his medication because he doesn’t think he's mentally ill. He was evicted from his home, but had to be physically removed because he believed he owned the house. He’s still functional, so he doesn’t fit the bill for going into a psychiatric hospital, but now he's homeless. For Bill, loneliness and isolation trigger schizophrenic episodes.
Now if Bill ends up "breaking in" to his old house, instead of being arrested, he'll be taken to the stabilization center. There he can socialize with the staff and his peers, receive psychiatric treatment and have a warm meal. He’ll have his own “nook” with a comfortable recliner/bed and a window and he’ll be able to hear relaxing water sounds in the background. Ideally he’ll re-engage long enough to develop a plan for a new place to live.
People like Bill often end up in jail. A 2016 study demonstrated that 44% of the people in the Deschutes County Adult Jail had a mental illness. For many people with schizophrenia, bipolar and psychosis, the first point of entry into mental health treatment is the criminal justice system, after they commit petty crimes like trespassing or disorderly conduct.
Once they enter the system, it's hard for them to get out, as their symptoms make self-advocacy a challenge, Harris said.
“The stabilization center, which is meant to help people with serious mental health issues before they end up in the criminal justice system, has been one of the Board’s top priorities,” said County Commissioner Phil Henderson in a statement.
Sheriff Shane Nelson chimed in: “Alternatives to incarceration are important when you're trying to be proactive in law enforcement. Diverting people from the criminal justice system can often be the best solution for Public Safety.”
To run the center 24/7 it will take $2.5 million a year to operate. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the county came up short and the center will only be open during weekday business hours for now, so if someone is experiencing a mental health crisis after hours then they'll have to wait until it opens and guests inside the center will have to leave when it closes. The plan is to expand admission hours from 7am-9pm, seven days a week by August, Harris said.
The stabilization center will also be home base for two other progressive mental health programs that may put Deschutes County on the map in years to come. One is the Mobile Crisis Assessment Team that helps local law enforcement agencies when they go to mental health emergencies. The other is the Forensic Diversion Program, which meets with people with mental illness in the county jail to help them self-advocate and to make sure they get connected with services the minute they are released.
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