AURORA, Colo. – Mental health professionals graduating from college may not anticipate wearing a bulletproof vest to work every day, but that’s exactly what clinicians on Aurora’s Crisis Response Team are required to do.
“It's definitely not the traditional kind of counselor or social work role,” Courtney Tassin, Aurora's Crisis Intervention Program Manager, said.
Aurora has two crisis intervention programs.
"One is an alternative response program called the Aurora Mobile Response Team that pairs a paramedic or an EMT with a mental health professional. Then we have our Crisis Response Team, which pairs law enforcement officers with mental health professionals who ride in the patrol car with them and respond to 911 calls," Tassin said.
Tassin not only leads the Crisis Response Team (CRT) but also assists with calls.
“Currently, I'm serving as a clinician on our team, as well as being a program manager. As far as contracted clinicians at the moment, we do not have any,” Tassin said.
Tassin said that’s because it’s tough to recruit clinicians.
“I think mental health in general is a field that is struggling with staffing,” Tassin said. “I do sit on a board for all of the program managers across the state who are funded by the Behavioral Health Administration… there are over 1000 vacancies across the state of Colorado.”
On Sunday, Aurora police officers shot and killed a man who was allegedly threatening RTD bus riders with a knife.
APD said the man was a part of a mental health work release program, prompting some city leaders to question why a co-responder wasn’t called.
“It's really hard to say if in that exact moment, a crisis response team unit would have been dispatched. I wasn't there to hear the call notes or hear the air on the radio. But what I will say is, our programs are best utilized when the primary concern for call for service is mental health,” Tassin said.
Tassin said with so many mental health calls coming in, the need for clinicians is growing and so is the need for funding.
“Currently, we are grant-funded for our crisis response team, we're very thankful and lucky to have received the grants that we have,” Tassin said. “But the city is looking at funding this program and creating a more sustainable source of funding.”
Other cities with similar programs and government funding like Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) Program partner with other agencies to find clinicians.
“It’s definitely a specialized population of clinicians that want to do this work, and want to be in the field all day,” Samantha Rabins, WellPower Co-responder Program Manager said.
WellPower helps provide mental health clinicians for Denver’s STAR Program.
Rabins said co-responder work isn’t for all mental health professionals.
“We're asking staff to be in crisis at all times,” Rabins said. “I think as co-responders, across the board, we're really trying to educate incoming social workers to say ‘hey, this is a job opportunity for you. Is this something that you're interested in?’”