A woman enters unlocked homes, looking in mirrors combing what she thinks are silk worms coming from her head. A man is holed up in a room full of guns as he fights voices in his head that are telling him to kill himself.
Prior to the establishment of a new mental health team at the Burbank Police Department, these sorts of calls would elicit a purely police-centric response that would do nothing to address the root of the problem, officials say. Now, the team is funneling these people away from the law enforcement grind and into a system where they can be connected to services that have a more long-term effect.
Take the suicidal man, a person in his mid-70s.
During a call-out on a recent Friday, Burbank police Officer Kristiana Sanchez and Svitlana Anishchenko, a clinical social worker, were briefed on the situation when they arrived at the scene. They entered the man’s home and quickly assessed the situation.
Anishchenko took a seat and asked the man how he was feeling.
Sanchez cleared the room when the man told Anishchenko he didn’t want to talk while there were a lot of people around.
The man said the voices were telling him to shoot or drown himself, although they did not tell him to hurt anyone else.
Sanchez and Anishchenko are part of the Burbank Police Department’s recently established Mental Health Evaluation Team. The call to the suicidal man’s home was their fifth call that Friday.
The man’s situation highlights a problem in the healthcare system that increasingly falls to police to resolve.
When a patient expresses suicidal thoughts, a psychiatrist should be contacted, or the hospital can call the Los Angeles County Psychiatric Mobile Response Team to assist. But often, hospitals do not have psychiatric help immediately available.
So that critical call for help may not be made.
That’s important because police said they are averaging 1.5 calls a day that are related to mental health problems.
With that increase — from 287 calls in 2009 to 462 in 2011, and 315 through July 29 this year — police wanted a better way to use existing resources and provide better assistance to those who need it.
Police officials think perhaps they’ve found it in the Mental Health Evaluation Team.
Burbank’s program is funded through April 30, 2013, with Burbank and the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health sharing the cost of the clinician’s salary.
Burbank police Capt. Mike Albanese, who oversees the team, said they will revisit the matter of funding with the City Council, noting that there is potential for county grants.
“Right now we’re exceeding expectations,” Albanese said. “We have energy and we’re moving forward.”
Burbank is one of just a few police departments with programs to address mental illness and homelessness, including Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Long Beach.
“It’s a tremendous benefit to the community and leads to efficiencies on our part — we’re not going to be needlessly running out to repeat calls because we can take care of it in a permanent or semi-permanent fashion,” interim Burbank police Chief Scott LaChasse said. “It’s a cost savings to us, and the community benefits.”
Partnerships with the USC School of Social Work and Temple University also are possibilities, LaChasse said.
Back at the home of the elderly man, officers in a bedroom were taking stock of his guns and confiscating them.
The man’s wife and grown daughter asked that he not be handcuffed as he is escorted out. Anishchenko agreed.
Anishchenko then began making calls to see what hospital would be the best fit for him.
Sanchez said understanding how to approach people and not aggravate them is key.
“We want to avoid the need to Taser someone, and treat them as someone with an illness,” she said.
And she added, “Officer safety is, of course, important.”
But being able to identify emotional and mental problems means officers will be better equipped to deal with the situations that may arise from those illnesses or disorders, she added.
Before the establishment of the mental health team, the elderly man would have been taken straight to Olive View Hospital in Sylmar, and there would be no follow-up.
But in another week or so, Sanchez and Anishchenko will check in on him.
“We want to make sure they are receiving treatment and to assist them with any resources they may need,” Sanchez said.
[For the Record: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the unidentified woman as being homeless.]