MERIDIAN, Idaho — The Meridian Police Department spread awareness Monday for Mental Health Awareness Month, unveiling a new patrol car and introducing the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT).
Meridian Police Officer Ashley Horvath is one of two police officers on the CIT, a position she said she sought out in part because of a loved one who died by suicide.
"When you get the phone call, you're like wait what? I think it was shocking," she said.
Horvath said she never thought suicide would impact someone within her circle of friends, especially not this friend.
"The friend was somebody who was very happy go lucky you know?" she said.
Now, Horvath spends her days as part of the Meridian Police Department's CIT, a group of two specially trained police officers and a mental health professional who respond to those experiencing a mental health crisis and work to get them help.
Mental Health Coordinator Sam Luque came to Meridian PD about a month ago from the Department of Health and Welfare where he was part of their mental health response team. This team often works with area police departments on calls, so he's been working with Meridian Police for years. But this new position is unlike any previous position.
"I'm working directly with law enforcement, I'm on the team so there's no waiting for law enforcement to arrive. I arrive with them," Luque said.
The rest of the team is noticing a difference, too.
"Having him there already has helped get us, has helped us help people a lot faster and actually more intently than I think even before when it was just Ashley and I," Officer Mike Panter said.
A local move part of a larger conversation
Recently, there's been a conversation nationally about how to best respond to mental health emergencies.
"Does it fall under police matters? And I think for years we've been responding to it because who else is going to respond to it?" Horvath said.
But many have suggested social workers or mental health professionals should respond instead. In the Treasure Valley, it's been a combination of the two responding, with agencies like Meridian Police that have a mental health professional employed, or with the help of the Department of Health and Welfare.
"I think we each play a really important role," Horvath said. "Sam can come in with his clinical expertise and say, "Hey this is what I'm seeing, this is what I'm hearing, this is my concerns.'"
The police officers on the team come in with different expertise to find the best response to keep the individual and the community safe, especially if there are weapons involved.
"A majority of our calls don't necessarily start with, 'Hey this person's armed with...' it does happen and I can't say it's not frequent enough that it's not a concern because it does happen on a pretty regular basis, but it's not like every single call we're going to is that," Horvath said.
She said a police officer is also necessary for these calls in Idaho because of laws surrounding involuntary mental health holds. This is when police or certain health care professionals send an individual to the hospital to receive help for their mental health when they're not willing to get help on their own.
An increasing need
This focus from the meridian police department comes at a time when the need is increasing.
"Call volume for the hotline is still increasing and it's hard to say whether that's pandemic, or whether that's idaho's population growing, or a bunch of different factors," said Lee Flinn, the director of the Idaho Crisis & Suicide Hotline.
"Everyone goes through rough times and sometimes we need a little extra help and what that looks like for one person may be very different than another person," Horvath said.
If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health emergency, call 911 or the Idaho Crisis & Suicide Hotline.