Unit sees most referrals come from outside law enforcement
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated who could refer people to the Sebastian County Crisis Stabilization Unit. Referrals are made by both law enforcement and community health centers.
Although the Sebastian County Crisis Stabilization Unit is designed to keep people with mental health disorders out of jail, most patients are brought in from outside law enforcement.
Under new direction from the Department of Human Services, the Five West Crisis Stabilization Unit can accept patients from throughout the state, said Kathryn Lawson Griffin, the Justice Reinvestment coordinator in the governor's office. But none of the units have ever turned away patients because of their location.
The unit opened in February 2018 to offer a place for people during a mental health crisis.
At the unit, people are able to adjust their medications or get on new medication. They receive a 30-day supply of medication and a referral to Community Mental Health Center Director Joey Potts said.
The unit serves eight counties: Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Logan, Polk, Pope, Scott, and Sebastian. Within the last year, the state added Johnson and Pope Counties.
“There was really just no reason for them not to be included," Griffin said.
No people from Pope County have gone to the unit yet, and only one person from Johnson County has used the unit.
The state decided to add those counties because no new crisis stabilization units are scheduled to open in the state. There are now four units in the state.
Potts said for counties that are farther away from Sebastian County, it's an issue of not being able to spare any officers to get patients to the unit.
“It has a lot to do with their manpower," Potts said.
Law enforcement's take on the issue
Sheriffs from the various counties gave a variety of reasons why the number of people they take to the crisis stabilization unit is low.
Crawford County Sheriff Ron Brown said it's difficult to get people to agree to go to the unit, which accepts patients on a voluntary basis.
“They don’t see that we’re trying to help them," Brown said.
Capt. James Mirus said the Crawford County Sheriff's Department brings people to the unit three or four times a month.
But Mirus said officers are offering the unit to people on a daily basis.
Brown said he thinks that would improve if more officers had crisis intervention training, a 40-hour class that teaches them how to interact with people in a mental health crisis.
Crawford County has four officers with crisis intervention training, Mirus said. The department has about 68 officers, including those at the jail.
Logan County Sheriff Jason Massey said he sees the same problem of people refusing to go to the unit.
Massey doesn't view distance as a reason not to take people to Five Wests, even though it takes about two hours to get to the unit and back from Logan County, he said.
“If we have somebody who wants to go we’re going to take them," Massey said.
Scott County Sheriff Randy Shores said his department has never taken anyone to the Crisis Stabilization Unit. He leaves that to the Mansfield Police Department.
Mansfield Police Chief Wayne Robb said he is the only officer with crisis intervention training on his team, but all of his officers know that the unit is an option. Mansfield has four full-time officers, one part-time and one reserve officer.
Last year, the Mansfield department took three people to Five West. In his experience, Robb said most people are willing to get help and go to the unit.
But part of the problem is that sometimes there are not enough beds at the unit for his officers to take people there.
The Sebastian County Sheriff's Department's patrol officers took about six people to Five West last year. Officers also transferred about 12 people to the unit from the jail, said Sebastian County Sheriff Hobe Runion.
All the law enforcement officials viewed the crisis stabilization unit as a resource for them.
Brown said putting people in mental health crises in jail is not healthy for the people, or the function of the jail.
Brown compared putting those in a mental health crisis in jail to putting someone with a broken arm in jail.
“It’s a great resource. We’re definitely in favor of it and are glad it’s being provided," Massey said about the crisis stabilization unit.
The Sebastian County crisis stabilization unit was the first to open in the state. The rest of the units followed suit and are open in Pulaski, Washington and Craighead counties.
The state pays for the operation of the unit, up to $1.6 million a year. Western Arkansas Guidance, the community mental health center, staffs Five West.
Prior to COVID, the unit was treating about 100 people a month. But with social distancing in place, the unit is only able to treat about 60 to 70 people a month, Potts said.
Five West is part of a pilot program designed to see how well the units work.
The plan for the units was created in March 2017 with the passage of Act 423.
“The partnership between the state and the four counties of this pilot program is on the forefront of efforts in our state to help those in a mental health crisis,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in September 2019. “I believe in the promise of these units to better serve the people of our State.”
The four units are expected to divert about 4,800 people annually from jail to treatment, according to an Arkansas Governor’s Office news release.
“People who are mentally ill shouldn’t be in settings where they aren’t able to get the appropriate care for their mental health," the governor said in 2019. "That’s the saddest thing ever."