How mental health professionals may help reduce crime

By Jules Murtha | Medically reviewed by Amanda Zeglis, DO, MBA
Published August 8, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Police often respond to mental health- and substance abuse-related crises, despite lacking the proper training to effectively intervene in such circumstances.

  • In Denver, the Support Team Assistance Response (STAR) program has taken over select 911 calls to address mental health-related crises with the help of a mental health clinician and a paramedic.

  • The implementation of STAR led to a 34% decrease of less serious crimes in affected districts, suggesting the potential for healthcare professionals to alleviate mental health-related crises without using criminalization tactics.

Police are often the first to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis. An article published by the American Psychological Association stated that mental health and substance abuse concerns play a role in at least 20% of calls to the police—even though many police officers feel ill-equipped to address them.[]

Mental health professionals, on the other hand, have the training to effectively handle patients in crisis without taking punitive action.

To help drive down crime rates—as well as better serve those living with mental illnesses—healthcare professionals may play a more active role in addressing mental health crises.

Are police equipped to work with these patients?

Individuals often rely on police to address mental health emergencies and substance abuse crises, as they are typically considered first responders in such circumstances.

But research has shown that police officers may lack extensive training to effectively manage mental health crises. As a result, the interactions between patients with mental illness and police officers may be strained or at times even become violent.

According to a 2021 article published by Health Affairs, nearly a quarter of all fatal police shootings since 2015 have involved a person with a history of mental illness.[] Yet, more often, those individuals are faced with other difficult outcomes, such as homelessness or jail.

Mental health professionals, however, are trained to provide care to patients in acute need—and their skillset could be used in conjunction with police to reduce non-serious crime rates, as well.

Denver’s STAR program

One example of a program designed to provide better care for patients with mental illness in times of crisis is Denver, Colorado’s Support Team Assistance Response (STAR).

A study published by Science Advances in 2022 states that STAR took over select 911 calls in certain districts in Denver that were more likely to experience the need for a mobile crisis unit for 6 months in June 2020.[]

For these calls, instead of sending police, STAR deployed a mental health clinician and a paramedic in a medically equipped van. Programs like STAR make it possible for patients to receive rapid support on-site. The option to call the police for backup is available, but not required.

In its pilot period, STAR responded to incidents that fell under the following codes: Calls for assistance, suicide, indecent exposure, intoxication, syringe disposal, trespassing, and welfare checks. The STAR van would get dispatched once the situation was confirmed to be void of weapons, violence, or more urgent medical needs.

Crime reduced

Study results showed that the implementation of STAR led to a 34% reduction in non-serious crimes in the affected areas.

Crimes including trespassing, public disorder, and resisting arrest fell, largely because of the approach taken by healthcare professionals (HCPs) in these cases. Instead of reporting patients for their behaviors during a mental health crisis, the HCPs remained health-centered and focused on treating patients instead of reporting them.

Such findings point to the possibility that community-based response models to mental health crises involving HCPs in conjunction with police may be more effective in the future. The study authors mentioned the potential for these programs to help patients prosper.

"The results presented here suggest that community response models merit careful consideration as a highly cost-effective way to reduce police engagement with nonviolent individuals in crisis and to instead respond with appropriate healthcare."

Dee, et al.

What this means for you

A minimum of 20% of service calls to police involve a mental health crisis—including substance abuse issues—which some police officers may not have proper training to address. Emerging evidence shows that community-based care, including the deployment of paramedics and mental health professionals to patients in crisis, could be a more effective alternative in terms of keeping non-serious crime rates down. Further research could support the deployment of HCPs to address mental health crises in conjunction with police.

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