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The Daily Tar Heel

Orange County receives $1.2 million grant for non-law enforcement response team

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DTH Photo Illustration. A state grant of $1.2 million will enhance interactions between Orange County law enforcement and individuals during a mental health crisis.

Orange County recently received a $1.2 million grant to create a community care and response team for individuals with mental health illnesses who come into contact with law enforcement. 

The grant was awarded by the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. 

The Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department will administer the grant. Four social workers will be placed in departments throughout Orange County – the Orange County’s Sheriff's Office and the Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough police departments.

Caitlin Fenhagen, the director of the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department, said only law enforcement and emergency services can respond to 911 calls at the county level. Emergency dispatchers can route calls to local emergency services such as medical, fire and law enforcement agencies.

“Very frequently, law enforcement are the first to arrive on the scene of what may just be a behavioral health crisis,"  Fenhagen said. "And not only are they not trained with any real background in behavioral health – they do have some CIT training or mental health first aid – but it's very different."

There are limited actions that a law enforcement officer can do to provide assistance to an individual during mental health crises, Fenhagen said.

“Law enforcement has very little options other than to take somebody to the detention center where they can be removed from the street and incarcerated, or they could take them to the emergency room where they, very likely, will just walk right out and not get any treatment," Fenhagen said.

When law enforcement arrives in marked cars and uniforms, it has the potential to increase anxiety and create trauma, she said, which can escalate the situation and create an unsafe environment for surrounding people, officers and the individual.

Jonathan Abramowitz, a professor in UNC's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, said those with mental health-related problems can take this confrontation personally and become anxious, depressed or guilty.

“Sometimes, people with mental health problems might take things very personally and they might misinterpret what people say if they're being confronted,” Abramowitz said.

UNC first-year Miles Devine said during a crisis, an individual might experience disorganized thoughts, heightened emotions and, in extreme situations, physical symptoms.

"Even if you don't know them, it's important to give them space and have boundaries with that person," Devine said. "If situations arise, it's probably important to not be judgmental, and make assumptions about that person, or what they're going through."

The Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department works with individuals who are at risk of being impacted by the justice system and those who are in the process of re-entering the community after being justice-impacted, Fenhagen said.

Though some cases require an arrest or charge, Fenhagen said her department hopes to divert as many individuals with low-level offenses or behavioral issues from the legal system as possible. 

The Orange County Community Resource Court allows people with low-level offenses or misdemeanors to avoid a criminal charge or conviction after six months of compliance with assessments and treatment.

The community care and diversion response team created by the division will focus "specifically on diverting the growing population of individuals with serious mental illness and co-occurring disorders from arrest and incarceration."

The grant will run until September 2025, according to Orange County.

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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