Local News

Chapel Hill mental health counselors help police officers respond to 911 calls

Posted July 10, 2020 5:37 p.m. EDT
Updated July 12, 2020 11:35 a.m. EDT

— Chapel Hill Police Department is the only department in the Triangle that has mental health clinicians help officers respond to 911 calls.

Each time Sergeant Paul Bell responds to mental health calls in Chapel Hill, a licensed mental health counselor is riding shotgun.

Megan Johnson, leads a team of five mental health first responders who are on call all hours of the day.

The crisis unit is trained to help deescalate a situation where someone may want to take their own life. The counselors have specific training to help people who are struggling with substance abuse. The unit focus is on helping people who are struggling receive treatment for their specific needs.

Last month, Johnson's crisis unit responded to 93 calls and provided resources to more than 200 people over the phone.

"We can really divert them away from any sort of charges, or anything like that, by taking them to a detox center or providing them with support for whatever crisis is in that moment," Johnson said.

The mental health responders even have an office inside the police department headquarters.

“I don’t think we could really be a crisis unit without law enforcement’s involvement," she said. "There’s a lot of people that surface with law enforcement that we would never see otherwise."

While Chapel Hill officers are trained in crisis intervention, Bell said it doesn't compare to the expertise Johnson's team has when responding to sexual assaults, domestic violence or negotiating with a man barricaded inside his home.

"A lot of it has to do with they are not wearing a uniform," Bell said, "and they are able to make a connection at a different level than what we are."

Johnson and Bell hope that more police departments in the area will model the relationship that the mental health specialists and officers have in Chapel Hill.

"We are just so proud of it and want other people to be able to serve their community this way as well," said Johnson.

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