Mental Health Worker Now Responding With State Police

St. Johnsbury Police Chief Tim Page kneels on the front steps of the St. Johnsbury Police Department as gathered protesters also kneel for a moment of silence. Readers voted this our runner-up for top news photo of 2020. (Photo by Dana Gray)

The St. Johnsbury Police Department is looking into the idea of adding a mental health professional to the force.

The idea, which is still being developed, is to fill an open full-time position on the police department with a mental health worker who would respond to calls with the officers and deal with suicidal or mentally ill individuals.

“(Police) Chief Page and I and the rest of the police department are investigating an opportunity to bring in a full-time mental health professional through contracted services,” said Town Manager Chad Whitehead at Monday’s select board meeting. “This is similar to what Vermont State Police has recently done.”

Chief Page said Tuesday that his department responds to a lot of mental health-related calls which often consumes a lot of time officers could be dealing with other issues.

“Sometimes an officer can be tied up for an entire shift just dealing with that one individual,” said Page. “And sometimes we deal with that one individual several times a shift because we’ll go there for an issue and we leave and we have to come back for another issue.”

Page said the idea came from a review of the police department’s calls in which mental health issues stood out.

“We saw a definite need for mental health involvement in a lot of our responses,” said Page. “The state police have done it and it’s getting good reviews from them so I thought maybe it would be an avenue that we could pursue.”

Vermont State Police Lt. Hugh O’Donnell confirmed on Tuesday that the St. Johnsbury barracks has had a mental health worker assigned to it since June and agreed that the arrangement has been working well.

“He responds together with us to calls that could be mental health-related,” said O’Donnell. “He takes a lot of issues with people that we deal with frequently that are more of a mental health issue than a police issue and he deals with those.”

O’Donnell said the barracks mental health worker is employed by the private non-profit organization Northeast Kingdom Human Services.

“State mental health arranged for each of the barracks to get one of these positions,” said O’Donnell. “Two of the barracks already had them. We’re the third because of this new program where the state’s paying those agencies for the position. He works for them but he’s on our schedule and he works out of the barracks.”

O’Donnell said it’s a relationship that has been beneficial for everyone.

“It’s working both ways,” said O’Donnell. “He learns a lot about what we do and we learn a lot from him. He generally says that our guys do a good job of talking to people with mental health issues.”

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