An outreach team that pairs a mental health counselor with a sheriff’s deputy hit the streets of Lincoln County in March to bring help and healing to those with mental health disorders.
The goal? Connecting people on the verge of crisis with much-needed resources before they land in jail or a hospital emergency room is the mission of the Community Outreach and Mental Health Enhancement Team (COMET).
Jointly formed by the Behavioral Health department of the Lincoln Community Health Center (LCHC) and the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, this mobile response team meets with clients in the field to make referrals and connect vulnerable people with services.
“It could be that someone calls law enforcement because of a person yelling and talking to themselves in a public place," explained Sheryl Fisher, director of Behavioral Health at LCHC. "Maybe a person is off medications and not functioning well enough to call for help. This team can reach out to people, help them feel safe, and connect them with primary care services and other assistance.”
Pairing these initial contacts with follow-up care will help prevent a future crisis if the program meets its goals.
The demand for this unique type of service is undeniable. Lt. Adam Shanks, with the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office, has been in law enforcement for 23 years and says the upturn in these kinds of calls has been remarkable.
“In my early days, the calls for service were mostly tagged as a suspicious person or a suspicious activity. Most calls now are related to an emotionally-disturbed person and those calls have increased dramatically over my career,” Shanks said, noting that they can often be tied to substance use disorder and mental health disorders. “We realized we needed to address this at the local level and do what we can to have a positive impact and help people in need.”
COMET is staffed by Clinical Counselor Liz Scott and Deputy Siscilee Gouge in the mobile unit, with Community Health Worker Ellen Wenzel providing follow-up support.
Gouge, a Lincoln City native with more than seven years of law enforcement experience, has consistently made a practice of going above and beyond to help people, including carrying extra necessities in her patrol car to share with those in need. With the formation of the mobile outreach unit, she’ll now spend her week with people, overcoming the barriers to help.
“Often we see red flags thrown up, but as a patrol deputy, you don’t have enough time to put into issues that may not even be a crime,” Gouge said.
That all changes with the formation of COMET.
“Helping them should be much more seamless and we should get to people before it becomes a situation where they hurt somebody or themselves,” Gouge noted.
Scott, a licensed professional counselor and a certified drug and alcohol counselor, is equally passionate about the new program, in part because she saw how something similar benefited people in Benton County.
“I noticed that it made a huge difference in how quickly people could access services in a crisis,” Scott said. “Once we started coordinating with law enforcement (in Benton County), it just seemed to create a lot more efficient collaboration.”
Scott and Gouge both express a love for the work they do, a disposition that is sure to benefit the entire community.
“As a crisis worker, we see people when they are having their worst day,” Scott said. “My favorite part of the job is working with people and the time I get to spend with individuals. I just try to minimize the length of the crisis, get through it more quickly and normalize it, because many people have a mental health crisis at some point.”
Her partner in the mobile unit shares that enthusiasm for helping people.
“I’ve known since kindergarten that I wanted to be a law enforcement officer. I know it’s my calling. This is how I’m changing the world and the perception of law enforcement," Gouge said. "So many of us truly care and we work within the boundaries we are given. When I see somebody in need, it’s obvious to me that I’m meant to be in that place.”
Driving an unmarked vehicle and dressed in a casual manner will be the modus operandi for Gouge and Scott, since the goal is to put people in need at ease. This dynamic duo will also be meeting with local social service organizations, law enforcement agencies, and support service providers to familiarize them with COMET and the mission at hand.
“We want them to drive the county and start making connections with people who appear to be in need. We also want them to connect to services to let them know we are up and running. The overarching role is to help people and that starts by building trust,” Fisher noted.
While the Sheriff’s Office was able to assign a deputy to this role, LCHC sought and received an Integrated Behavioral Health Services Supplemental Funding grant (HRSA-19-100) from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).