‘One-of-a-kind’ mental health partnership promises to save lives

LAKE MARY, Fla. – The Lake Mary Police Department is “reimagining” how law enforcement officers help people suffering from mental illness in a “one-of-a-kind” public-private partnership, according to Lake Mary Police Officer Zach Hudson.

Hudson, with the support of the police chief and the entire department, has pulled together social workers, hospitals, doctors, pharmacies, churches, synagogues and even food pantries for this initiative.

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He calls it the Mental Health Intervention Group.

“You have so many people out there that are hurting, so many people struggling with their mental health, depression, schizophrenia or whatever it might be,” Hudson said. “And we have that contact with them, we deal with those people every day, but the only tool we’ve ever had historically is the Baker Act, which is when we take them into custody and take them to a mental health unit.”

Hudson said the “reimagining” is a first for any police department in Central Florida, even in the U.S., and aims to prevent those in mental health crisis from ending up in a confrontation with police.

Officers often have no choice but to “Baker Act” someone in crisis – hospitalizing them for their own safety. Sometimes, a confrontation with someone in crisis ends in a tragedy.

“Because at the end of the day you’re talking about saving people’s lives, people who are suffering from mental illness,” Hudson said. “They will hurt themselves or someone else, we want to prevent that.”

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Hudson partnered with South Seminole Hospital in Sanford to identify people in crisis and refer them to the Lake Mary Police Department and the 31 social workers with whom the department has contracted, if they choose.

Jaclyn Sokolowsky, director of Emergency Services at South Seminole Hospital, said the hospital “jumped on board.”

“Over the last couple months we’ve had an increase in our behavior health population, and this is a great way to intervene with these patients sooner than later during this time of crisis,” Sokolowsky said. “If we’re able to keep them from coming into the hospital and intervene, that’s the number one goal.”

Currently, South Seminole Hospital is law enforcement’s primary receiving facility for patients admitted under the Baker Act.

“Unfortunately these patients have to come back because there’s not another resource for them to go to,” Sokolowsky said. “So this will provide them that opportunity.”

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Cyndy Kingston is the newly-hired manager of the Mental Health Intervention Group.

“Everything is free for our clients,” Kingston said. “I never know what I’m getting myself into. When the phone rings, I find someone who can help. We have a lot of resources.”

One resource is a food pantry — three of them, actually — that stock quality food and supplies.

“When you have people suffering from mental illness, and those people do not have access to food, a lot of times they don’t take their medication,” Hudson said.

One of the three food pantries is exclusively for the elderly and specializes in medical supplies like wheelchairs and walkers. Workers at the pantry will deliver the supplies and food if the patient is unable to come in person.

“You might have someone depressed because they don’t have food or a wheelchair ramp, so what we try and do is really go after the causal effects of why they’re depressed or upset or in crisis,” Hudson said. “As police officers we want to get into those positions where we can help those people and solve problems.”

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Hudson also partnered with Sunshine Pharmacy. Owner Channi Sodhi sits on the Board of Directors of the Mental Health Intervention Group.

Sunshine donates the drugs to mental health patients who are uninsured or under-insured because consistent medication is key, Sodhi said.

“If they’re on prescription drugs, they need to take prescriptions on time,” Sodhi said.

Thirty-one certified social workers will visit patients across Seminole County once they’ve been identified by police or hospitals and agree to treatment or counseling.

“We need to go to them because ultimately who is going to interact with them later is law enforcement,” Hudson said. “We want to reduce those contacts.”

The social workers will also deliver food, supplies, medication or anything else the patients need and connect them with any resources they need.

“We are working with mental health workers that go to the patient’s home,” Hudson said. “These are people the police department has interacted with. These are known individuals. The social workers determine what the needs are at the home, and that’s where the pantry comes in, when those that are low income need that help.”

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Hudson said the Mental Health Intervention Group is tapping into the community because it will take the community to help the mentally ill stay as healthy as possible.

“This is truly one-of-a-kind in the country, it’s the first time this type of system is being put into place, a public-private cooperative, to try and help people suffering from mental illness,” Hudson said. “We don’t want to criminalize someone’ mental health condition, that’s really important. In order to deal with the problems of today, we must be more innovative, more effective.”

The Lake Mary Police Department encourages and accepts donations of all kinds to assist with the Mental Health Intervention Group, to learn more click or tap here.

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