The Bangor Police Department building. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

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Laura Supica represents District 126 in the Maine House of Representatives. She is a former member of the Bangor City Council.

Mental health crises happen at all hours of the day. Often they happen when the 9-5 support staff have gone home and when shelters are full. Here in Maine, we have a network of mobile units that are tasked with responding to mental health crises, but over the past several years, funding for these services has been cut and their staff reduced.

Underfunding these services has put an unfair burden on law enforcement officers, who are often the only ones available to respond. When an individual is disoriented, suffering from substance use disorder or experiencing some other form of crisis, they need properly trained mental health specialists to help them get immediate and appropriate care. This is why I’ve introduced LD 968, a bill supported by the Bangor Police Department, to fund the expansion of mobile mental health crisis response services across the state.

I first began thinking about this issue during my time on the Bangor City Council where I learned that police officers often respond to mental health crises because there are no other emergency services available. In testimony submitted by the Bangor Police Department in support of LD 968, they state: “For police to respond to issues of mental health is an inefficient use of resources and tends to funnel individuals in crisis through the criminal justice system rather than the mental health system, where individuals can receive appropriate treatment without criminalization.”

We can improve our state’s approach to mental health services and better support law enforcement officers by adequately funding mobile crisis response units. Without proper care, individuals in crisis often end up in jail or in the emergency room. This is an expensive and ineffective solution.

In the next fiscal year, county jails will cost between $90 million and $100 million. The state will give the counties $18.4 million. The counties, and the municipalities within them, will be responsible for footing the rest of that bill. When municipalities need to raise money, it often comes directly from our property taxes. If we can reduce dependence on county jails and emergency rooms and instead rely on mobile crisis services, we can save money and ensure that those in crisis get the help they need.

Mobile crisis response services serve a broad range of situations. They can screen for individuals’ risk of self-harm and harm to others, de-escalate and resolve conflicts, provide peer support, coordinate with medical and behavioral health services and follow up with necessary referrals.

Individuals experiencing a mental health crisis require specialized care that extends beyond the bounds of the immediate crisis. Mental health professionals can optimize public safety while simultaneously navigating complex mental health situations. Crises don’t just happen Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and neither can crisis response services.

Of course, mobile crisis response is only one tool in the continuum of care. But funding these programs will go a long way towards providing better care for those in critical need and will allow law enforcement officers to focus on the work they are trained to do.

As the Bangor Police Department stated in their testimony in support of this bill, we cannot adequately care for individuals experiencing a mental health crisis through the criminal justice system. That’s why we need to properly invest in county-based services that give people the support they need when they find themselves in mental health emergencies. By expanding crisis response units in Maine, we can alleviate the burden placed on law enforcement officers, save municipalities money and better serve those in need.