Breaking News
More () »

New Shaker Heights program aims to help first responders handle mental health emergencies

The program matches police and firefighters with a Northeast Ohio hospital system.

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — Police and fire departments across the country are grappling with how to respond to mental health calls. That's why a new first responder is joining the ranks in Shaker Heights.

A pilot program between the Shaker Heights police and fire departments aimed at diffusing mental health situations comes from a partnership between the city and MetroHealth. Annette Amistadi, a social worker who is at the center of the program, typically works with MetroHealth Recovery Resources and rides with first responders to mental health calls.

"Mental health — it's not cookie cutter," Amistadi said. "It can affect everybody so differently in so many ways. Mental health is part of us. Mental health, physical health, it's all one."

Amistadi detailed to us how the program works.

"We start off our morning with going over the past 24 hours of what has happened (maybe when we weren't here) and what needs to be addressed for a follow-up," she told 3News. "So from that meeting, I get information on the different calls or the different scenarios that happened and occurred, and then I'm able to reach out to those individuals."

Amistadi also works to connect people with resources and helps identify barriers to services.

"The different calls that I'm seeing could be somebody who maybe had suicidal ideations and was taken to the hospital," she explained, "or somebody who's maybe going through depression and anxiety and had an anxiety attack maybe for the first time, and that's really scary."

Also scary is what can happen to individuals going through a mental health crisis without access to the support they need. MetroHealth's Dr. Julia Bruner says without the appropriate intervention and response, bad outcomes could range from homelessness to incarceration and even death. Those are outcomes this year-long pilot program hopes to avoid.

"In those scenarios where people are at risk, and at high risk, I hope to see the outcomes in relation to suicide and in relation to overall deaths go down," Bruner said.

"Mental health calls are increasing," Shaker Heights Police Chief Jeff DeMuth added. "When the onset of the pandemic occurred, that just exacerbated the situation."

While the calls keep coming in, the necessary training isn't always keeping up.

"Officers are trained to be police officers," DeMuth said. "They are not trained to be social workers. They get just a very basic amount of training in regards to responding to mental health type calls."

The same goes for firefighters and EMS workers.

"When you look at the curriculum a paramedic goes through — all of the training, you know — historically, there's only a little bit of that that deals with behavioral health crisis intervention training," Shaker Heights Fire Chief Patrick Sweeney told 3News.

Emergency response has also been thrust into the spotlight because of a new focus on social and racial justice and mental health.

"What is law enforcement's role in those calls?" DeMuth asked. "How they respond, do they really need people with guns on scene?"

"What we're finding is throughout our careers, we may not have really been delivering the best service to them that we would like to," Sweeney said.

City leaders hope this program can make a difference and set a precedent for other communities.

"This program is getting some attention certainly locally," Sweeney stated, "but we're getting individuals who are reaching out to us from different parts of the state and the nation who are watching this."

They are monitoring what happens when someone with clinical expertise is paired with the men and women who are first on the scene and they are all working together to make a change.

"Maybe I found one thing that was able to make a difference or I was able just to listen and someone was able to talk it through," Amistadi said. "That feels good to at least know that that [maybe one] conversation or review of a resource could possibly make a difference for somebody."

A difference made, one conversation or connection at a time.

Before You Leave, Check This Out