SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – The mental health crisis was around before the pandemic started but now it’s reaching a fever pitch. The 22News I-Team learned how law enforcement and mental health experts are seeing a growing need for mental health services.

“We’ve seen this mental health crisis manifest in our work in criminal justice and public safety,” said Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni.

Gulluni said the last few weeks, law enforcement has been called to a number of suicides, many of them young people. He said the conversation is getting louder around how the pandemic impacts people’s mental health.

“Some of the more dangerous calls and the more dangerous interactions they have are with people whose mental health is unstable. So now with more cases of mental health instability, the interactions police are having are sometimes much more difficult,” said Gulluni.

Professor David Kuzmeski is a senior faculty member of the criminal justice department at AIC. He said officers will be the first to tell you they’re not mental health professionals, “They get some training but probably woefully inadequate in how to deal with when people have mental health crisis.”

Jennifer LaRoche is the Vice President of Acute and Day Programs with Clinical and Support Options (CSO). She said the continued stressors of the pandemic and the people returning to normal life has been tough for people of all ages, including some, who never needed help before.

“Once she goes outside and comes home, she spends the next several hours washing all of the clothing that they had. She goes to the grocery store, wiping down every item to the point where she’s not sleeping to the point where she’s not interacting with others in the way she used to,” said LaRoche.

LaRoche made it clear, people who struggle with mental health are not more likely to commit acts of violence or aggression but some who are struggling with mental health may see 911 as their only option.

“If someone’s in crisis, we want them to get mental health services and not have that crisis evolve into a crime that then the only option is to enter them into the criminal justice system,” said Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper.

According to a report done by Northampton’s policing review commission, more than 450 police calls were labeled mental health related in 2020. The city is now working together with CSO through a program called Co-Response, where a trained clinician will go on certain mental health calls with police.

“The clinician comes in the next day and we’ll reach out to this person in the community and work with them and again it goes back to reaching people before they reach the true crisis,” said LaRoche.

CSO is coordinating with police departments from 25 communities across Franklin and Hampshire Counties alone. Departments apply for grants through the state.

LaRoche said over the last year, this program has helped officers, even when a co-response clinician is not working, “How to talk to people, how to engage with people. Not to be social workers but how to provide a different kind of response.”

LaRoche said this is not a program to replace officers but instead to recognize on a day-to-day basis they’re not just responding to crime.

“it’s about taking each call separately and looking at what is the best response for that individual,” said LaRoche.

If you’re struggling with mental health, don’t be afraid to reach out to these resources.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Samaritans Statewide Helpline: 1-877-870-4673