Jefferson County Sheriff responds to rise in mental health-related incidents

Published: May. 25, 2023 at 6:34 PM CDT
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JEFFERSON COUNTY (KMOV) -- Law enforcement agencies are seeing an increase in calls to respond to people having a mental health crisis. Sometimes crimes are involved and sometimes they’re not.

Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Marshak said that’s also the case in his county.

“There are a lot of times we encounter people who are good people who are otherwise off their medication, that need something else other than a historical law enforcement response,” he said.

Marshak has hired three mental health professionals to deal with this growing issue. Two are mental health coordinators who respond alongside deputies when mental health issues might be an issue at an incident. The other works with inmates at the Jefferson County Jail.

Austin Schwent has previously served on the St. Louis Crisis Response team and worked as a mental health professional in a prison and a hospital emergency room. He said resources get tied up with deputies and ambulances being called to the same home repeatedly because of someone experiencing a mental health crisis over and over.

“If I can focus on those people who are utilizing services a lot because they can’t get their treatment figured out, not only is it going to be life changing for them to get them stable, the police don’t have to come here anymore,” he said.

Research has shown people with mental illness are more likely to be arrested and more likely to be injured or killed during an encounter with law enforcement.

“The idea for us to incorporate a mental health professional is really to reduce the possibility of a law enforcement lethal encounter,” said Marshak.

Dr. Joshua White has been working with inmates at the Jefferson County Jail for three years.

“Most of the time, we get people who aren’t really sick but just have depression or anxiety and they really need medication. Well, we can help navigate toward that,” he said.

White said he helps to identify and protect inmates who are suicidal. And he said he talks with inmates to help them get to the heart of why they made bad decisions that caused them to end up in jail. He also said he works with inmates when they’re released to help connect them with services so they don’t return to criminal activity and end up back in jail.

The sheriff’s office’s mental health coordinator responded to 600 calls last year. So far this year, they’ve responded to 304.