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'If you treat them, people get better': 'Co-responder' program to help law enforcement deal with mental health calls

On July 1, a new law will allow community service boards to implement a "co-responder" program to deal with mental health-related calls.

MACON, Ga. — So far this year in Macon, three people reportedly suffering from mental health crises ended up getting shot and killed. On July 1, a new law will allow community service boards to implement a "co-responder" program to deal with mental health-related calls.

Law enforcement and mental health experts will soon work hand-in-hand when necessary. Starting Friday in Georgia, mental health experts from local community service boards can be called when police respond to situations involving people experiencing a mental health crisis. 

Dr. Brian Wright is a psychiatry resident for Piedmont Macon Behavioral Health.

"To get people who are in mental health crisis into the right mode of treatment rather than just having police officers respond and these people end up in jail, getting them to hospitals and to mental health treatment centers," Dr. Wright said.

He says once people get into the legal system, charges begin to pile up and they end up with more charges than what they started with.

Wright says they may even spend years in the system, and it could all be avoided if they received the proper response from the start.

"Because they're not given their medications. They're not in an environment where the police and the jail systems are overwhelmed and just aren't set up to handle people who have mental illness problems," Dr. Wright said. 

Major Brad Wolfe with the Bibb County Sheriff's Office says the program could be beneficial in the long run.

"It would save us some time, save us some arrests, probably save us some fights, different things like that where we can help people get the treatment they need rather than just bring them to jail to keep them from doing what they're doing," Wolfe said. 

"Most mental health conditions are highly responsive to treatment. If you treat them, people get better. If we can keep people on their medications, it keeps them out of the penal system, out of the hospital system, and out of trouble," Dr. Wright said. 

Wolfe says it also might keep jails from being overcrowded. He says they deal with a lot of people that are mentally ill.

"A lot of times, that's what we will do. We will call for an ambulance to come out and take them to the hospital for evaluation, but then, they get evaluated and get put on medicine, they're good for a little while, and then they stop taking their medicine, so we are right back where we started. This program could help with all of that stuff," Wolfe said. 

Dr. Wright hopes the new law gives people access to the resources they need. He says most of the conditions are treatable, and getting people on the appropriate medications could be life-changing.

Wright also says there are community service boards that are public mental health programs that already exist in communities. The one in Macon is River Edge Behavioral Health on Emery Highway.

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