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New London looks to recruit 'navigators' to deal with mental health issues

New London — Jeanne Milstein, the city’s human services director, says a $200,000 boost in funding in the mayor’s proposed budget could reduce the number of mental health-related calls to police.

She is developing a plan for a Peer Navigator program and looking to hire at least three people “with lived mental health experience” to perform follow-up work with individuals with mental health issues who find themselves dealing with police officers.

About 40% of police calls for service in the city are mental health- related, and Milstein said the program could reduce that number and curtail repeat calls from certain individuals. Navigators would work with individuals to get treatment, housing, jobs or whatever it is that had initially prompted a situation that ended with a call to police.

“If you have a loved one who experiences a mental health challenge, often there is nowhere else to call besides 911. What people need is a caring, constant relationship with someone. Trust and engagement is essential,” Milstein said.

While many police officers are trained in crisis intervention, not all mental health issues require police response. Some can be avoided with the right connections, she said.

The program would be modeled on an existing and successful Recovery Navigator program developed several years ago to address the opioid crisis, pairing navigators with people struggling with opioid addiction. That program has helped reduce medical transports and connect individuals with follow-up care. The Recovery Navigators are part of a larger Overdose Action Team, which involves police, firefighters and community partners including Ledge Light Health District.

The idea for the peer navigator program comes in part from recommendations by a special committee that Mayor Michael Passero formed last year to examine police policies and procedures.

A report issued by the committee recommended finding new funding sources to strengthen human services in New London and a holistic approach to budgeting for public safety and support services.

New London police Capt. Matthew Galante said the department welcomes the opportunity to further strengthen ties to social service agencies and bolster what he said is already one of the department’s strengths.

The department in 2000 was the first in the state to develop a Crisis Intervention Team program to address what he said were special challenges to law enforcement posed by people with mental illness.

The department also works with social workers and staff from the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to reach people in need. A staff member with the DMHAS Mobile Outreach Team performs regular ride-alongs with police and conducts follow-up visits as needed.

“I believe this program would be very beneficial to assist residents in need of mental health treatment. The follow-up component for the individual in need is paramount to the success of this program,” Galante said.

Rather than dealing with a police officer, he said it will make a huge difference for someone with mental health issues to have someone to talk to “that has walked in their shoes” and can serve as a guide for proper follow-up treatment.

Milstein said the program, if the budget allows, could be up and running by the fall.

g.smith@theday.com

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