Dane County residents experiencing mental health crises could be taken to a stabilization center instead of the county jail or hospital if an initiative planned for 2021 is successful.
On Thursday, Dane County Executive Joe Parisi and County Board Chair Analiese Eicher announced the county plans to create a “mental health triage and restoration center.” They committed to providing $300,000 in the 2021 county budget for the program.
The center would provide services for those facing mental health challenges. Individuals would be able to seek walk-in services, be referred by a community partner or be brought in by law enforcement, the county said.
Eicher said such centers, also known as crisis centers or stabilization centers in similar models across the country, are an important alternative to jail.
“The triage and restoration center is a key part of our criminal justice reform package to keep people out of jail, and to improve the health of the community,” Eicher said.
Parisi noted that an estimated 40% of inmates in the Dane County Jail have mental illnesses.
“We must do everything we can to support those in crisis and find safe alternatives to incarceration whenever possible,” Parisi said.
24/7 options needed
The idea of a crisis restoration center has been around for years, but has gained attention recently with the nationwide protests calling for police reform after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Protesters have called on those in power to find alternatives to policing, especially for people of color and those experiencing mental illness.
Dane County officials were exploring the possibility of a crisis center in 2018, but this is the first time money is being earmarked for the project.
Last fall, the county got back findings from a $140,000 study that assessed gaps in the mental health care it provides. The report noted a lack of 24/7 crisis service options in Madison.
A new psychiatric hospital in Middleton expected to open early next year is also supposed to have a crisis center.
In a related initiative announced in July, the county is also exploring the potential creation of a mental-health first responder program. The county is receiving assistance from a not-for-profit research corporation to identify what would be needed to start a pilot program. The city of Madison is also interested in the pilot.
That program could be modeled after similar initiatives in other cities, such as the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program in Eugene, Oregon, in which a team consisting of a medic and a social worker respond to some mental health 911 calls. CAHOOTS offers services including crisis counseling, suicide prevention, substance abuse, housing crisis assistance, transportation to social services and non-emergency medical care.
The triage and restoration center initiative builds on other criminal justice reforms the county has made over the years, including implementing a community restorative court and other programs that divert people from jail, Parisi said.
Parisi said the county is well positioned to develop the restoration center because of its experience developing mental health programing. The county created a program in recent years that provides on-site mental health services for youths in schools that costs $1 million annually. In a few weeks, the county will open a Dane County Behavioral Health Resource Center, which will better connect residents with mental health and addiction services.
Anna Moffit, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Dane County, said she’s grateful the county is taking the lead on the project, which she called “pivotal.”
“We know it will take a community-wide effort to make the dream of the center a reality,” Moffit said.