Jo Freedman’s first day as a mental health clinician on the Portland, Maine Police Department didn’t go at all as she expected.
Instead of being shown to a desk and told where she would work inside the precinct, she was given a radio, a bulletproof vest, and the use of an unmarked police car to co-respond to calls of people who were suicidal, homicidal, or acutely psychotic.
One of her first cases involved a suicidal man who was naked and seriously bleeding. He was sobbing and she calmed him, until the ambulance arrived and went with him to the hospital.
“Despite having a masters in Clinical counseling, I learned about how to be truly present with someone in crisis from the officers who co-responded to the scene with me,” Freedman said.
While becoming Mental Health Coordinator for the Portland PD wasn’t what she planned when studying in college that she stepped readily into the role.
“I thought it was genius that the police trusted me enough to allow me to help out on calls,” Freedman said.
The clinician was given two directives: reduce the time officer’s spent on mental health-related calls and the follow up time for police. Not long after another clinician was hired to help her and she stepped into a supervisory role. The Portland Police Department was one of the first to send clinicians on ride alongs, she said.
Eight years later, Freedman runs the Mental Health Unit. In 2010, the department received a Justice and Mental Health grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance that allowed the force to hire another liaison. The Mental Health Unit is now comprised of Freedman, two clinicians, a part-time clinician and two interns.
“What makes our model different is that we are given call signs and dispatched to go out on our own and do our jobs. In most departments, the clinicians ride with the officers and they can get sidetracked when the officers respond to non-mental health related calls,” she said. “The officers here trust us to help and give us a lot of freedom.”
Freedman said when there is down time, the clinician’s follow up to make sure that people who have had past interactions with the police are doing well. They go to shelters, soup kitchens, and into the community to build relationships.
“We had a veteran in our community who was slipping. His mother called us about him having mental health issues. We talked with others who knew him and found that there were a lot of people worried about his behavior,” she said.
The Mental Health Unit gave those people their number and eventually someone said that they had seen him and that he was living in a shelter. They eventually were able to get the man to seek help.
“The person told us that after a couple of weeks of treatment he is in a much better place,” she said.
Freedman said that the most challenging work facing her department is that there is a shortage of treatment providers for people with mental health issues in the state.
“We have a problem in Maine,” she said. “There aren’t enough psychiatric beds and sometimes when officers need to divert a person to hospital there is no room and they end up back on the streets.”
She said that there have been occasions when the police have taken someone to a state hospital for treatment and since there is no room they are released and it’s not long before the cops are arresting them again. In the worst cases, it’s a cycle that keeps repeating itself.
“If there is something not okay with someone, how can we release them without a discharge plan? If it were a child with heart problems we would never let them go without telling their parents about the treatments available to them and making sure that they were fully informed. It’s very frustrating.”
Freedman said she’s optimistic that a group composed of her and individuals from state hospitals, as well as local mental health organizations, will come up with some type of solution to address the problem.
“Now is the time for us to find a way to help these people,” she said.