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Emergency responders will now have a behavioral health clinician riding along on calls that involve mental health and substance abuse issues.

Law enforcement agencies in Pitkin County now have a team to assist with incidents involving someone with mental health and substance abuse issues.

The Pitkin Area Co-Responder Team (PACT) adds staffing for on-scene emergency responses, a case worker for follow ups and a peer support specialist to connect with people going through similar situations. The program is funded by a five-year grant awarded to Pitkin County’s Public Health Department from Colorado’s Marijuana Tax Cash Fund.

"This program is a win-win for the community,” said Karen Koenemann, Director of Public Health for the county. “It provides help to people in need of mental health, substance use and community based services, diverting them from the criminal justice system, while supporting police officers and jail staff so they can focus specifically on law enforcement issues.”

The program will support Pitkin County Sheriff's Office and the Aspen and Snowmass Village police departments. When a call comes in that involves a mental health situation, the co-responder will ride along to the scene.

“Working side by side (with law enforcement) co-responders make recommendations that can reduce the possibility of arrest or jail time, when treatment makes more sense,” explains an informational video about the program.

The intention is that the clinician on site might be able to divert someone from a trip to jail by connecting them with area resources instead, including program partners like Aspen Strong, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Economic Assistance Department.

“It is really and genuinely a partnership,” said Jordana Sabella, the planning prevention partnership manager for Pitkin County Public Health.   

After the initial contact, a case worker is then assigned to help with ongoing support programs. The case manager will make sure the person makes it to follow-up doctor appointments or counseling sessions and is also available to provide support to family members.

In addition, a peer-specialist has joined the team. The peer-specialist is in recovery himself, so he can relate to those who have been contacted by law enforcement and the PACT program.

“He is just so great at connecting to folks and really meeting them where they are at and getting them the support that they need,” Sabella said.

The behavioral health specialist, case worker and peer specialists are all provided in partnership with Mind Springs Health.

Pitkin County joins jails nationwide in disproportionately housing those who are in need of mental health resources. Last fall, Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo suggested creating an entire wing of the jail just for mental health detainees. In a budget presentation to county commissioners, DiSalvo said the average jail population had doubled within a decade and many were those grappling with mental health issues.

UndersheriffRon Ryan said Tuesday that the sheriff’s office tries to focus on well-being within the Pitkin County Jail. He said it’s often underlying and undiagnosed mental health and substance abuse issues that bring someone into contact with law enforcement in the first place.

“Being able to realistically identify and address these known issues will contribute to the overall well-being of our community,” said Ryan.

Before the PACT team, citizens may have been taken into jail just as a holding measure. He said having someone present at the time of an incident who can address behavioral health means that those who are in need may be able to bypass the judicial system and get directly into support programs.

“I also appreciate that our community’s initial contact with their public servants will not be enforcement-minded as much as it will be big-picture problem solving, knowing that many of the people we contact are struggling with other, much larger, issues than the reason for our contact,” Ryan said.

In order to celebrate the new PACT program and provide information regarding available resources for mental health and addiction, the county is throwing a party on June 28. The community is invited to the Aspen Fire Station for music, food and prizes, and to meet the PACT team and visit informational booths from area nonprofits and government agencies.

“We want to celebrate PACT but we also want to celebrate the continuum of resources that exist in this community to support mental health and substance use,” said Sabella.

A cloud-based data system is being developed so that the three law enforcement agencies and the PACT team will be able to upload information about incidents requiring a co-responder, which Sabella said will allow the county to continually improve the program, as well as report back to the state during the five years of the grant funded program.

Alycin Bektesh is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at Alycin@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @alycinwonder.