One year later, Bluffton Police mental health advocate celebrates successes and seeks more | hilton head

BLUFFTON — A large portion of Hannah Anderson’s workday is spent monitoring 911 calls. Watching for public disturbances, she also looks for signs of “altered mental status,” the EMS code for a person who might be suffering from a Mental illness.

“If someone is out in public having a manic episode, a lot of times it will turn out to be a disturbance,” he said. In those cases, the type of criminal intervention police officers are trained to perform may not be the best course of action. As the Bluffton Police Department’s Community Mental Health Advocate, Anderson is there to offer a different kind of intervention.

“A lot of people don’t seek help because it’s overwhelming. They don’t even know where to start. So I do it for them. I’ll give them several options of places they can talk to,” he said.

Maintains a list of mental health providers available to the community. She knows which places accept which insurance, so she can better connect people with the help they need. If a person is uninsured or does not have the means to pay for mental health care, you have options for them as well. He doesn’t call the people he works with criminals or suspects, regardless of what they did or didn’t do. Rather, they are your customers.

In November, Anderson celebrated his first anniversary on the force. While positions like his have become more common, especially in larger cities, his role was the first of its kind in the Lowcountry. Because her title was newly created, when she reported to work there was no standard operating procedure to guide her. All the ground that she has covered in the last year had to be reforged.

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“There are a lot of people, when I call them, they say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know the police department had a position like that.’ So it’s great, especially for a smaller agency to do something like this,” she said.

A seat at the table

If it hadn’t been for Councilwoman Bridgette Frazier, there would be no such advocate in Bluffton.

“I’m not a complainer, I’m a doer. I knew the only way to make real change was to have a seat at the table,” said Frazier, who won her city council seat in 2020.

Frazier saw firsthand how shocking it can be for someone to find the right care when a loved one who was battling severe depression became suicidal.

“They didn’t have a lot of resources and they didn’t have insurance,” he said. They were able to reach the Lowcountry chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

“NAMI works on a sliding scale. They give people a solid plan to really move onto the path of healing and become whole again. Their services are phenomenal, but a lot of people don’t know it,” he said.

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Frazier, whose father, Oscar Frazier, was Bluffton’s poet laureate as well as a city council member and the first black temporary mayor, has been a community organizer and activist for as long as she can remember. She lived in Florida when Trayvon Martin was murdered in 2012.

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“I started a lot of the early protests and vigils. I got people together to talk about those injustices and how we can have conversations to alleviate a similar situation in our communities,” he said.

It was the same question asked after the 2020 killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers. Only then did she have a voice on the city council.

“Let’s say someone steals a package of meat from a grocery store, instead of calling the police, let’s call a social worker. Because why are they stealing a package of meat? Something is going on,” he said.

Frazier was the one who proposed using money in the city budget to add a mental health advocate to the police force. She got a little push. It was suggested that she save money by doing the position part-time. But any serious person, she argued, would want full-time pay. She also argued that a mental health advocate would have a double benefit.

“It provides assistance to the resident in crisis. But it’s also a mitigation strategy, because if we send police who are trained to deal with crime to handle problems that are more behavioral and need de-escalation techniques, then they’re responsible if something goes wrong, and the city becomes responsible,” he said.

Headquarters of the Bluffton Police Department. Michael Cuglietta/Staff

Walks and follow-ups

When Anderson isn’t at her desk monitoring 911 calls, she can usually be found on a trip with an officer. If a mental health call comes in while she’s out in the field, they’ll respond to it. She has responded to 33 calls so far this year.

She recalls a woman who suffered from a substance abuse problem, who was often reported to the police for public and domestic disturbances. She doesn’t like cops very much, Anderson explained. But she and the woman have built a relationship. In one case, when they responded to a call, the woman was yelling in her driveway.

“I got out of the car and interacted with her first. I talked to her and was able to calm her down and get her back in so we could handle the situation,” Anderson said. If she hadn’t been there to de-escalate the tension, she explained, she might have quickly gone south and the woman might have ended up in handcuffs.

“Officers don’t like to arrest people who have obvious mental health problems. Nobody likes that,” Anderson said.

A big part of your job is follow-up. In the example of the woman with the substance abuse problem, within the past year Anderson has met the woman’s husband and her adult son. They will often ask for direction and support.

“Sometimes a follow-up takes up my whole day because the family is asking for additional resources and I have to do research and make phone calls,” she said.

Anderson works closely with Michelle Casey, Executive Director of the Lowcountry Chapter of NAMI. To make it easier for professionals to connect people to the right mental health services, Casey is in the process of forming a committee of local mental health resources, which would include Anderson, members of the department of public safety and other similar agencies. The goal is to create a space where they can exchange ideas and ensure an open line of communication.

“I’m very excited about it,” Anderson said.

This spring, the Bluffton Police Department was recognized by the Municipal Association of South Carolina (MASC) for its achievements in public safety. The award was due, in large part, to Anderson’s work.

MASC has not been the only entity to recognize the impact that Anderson has had. Philip Foot, the deputy county administrator for public safety in Beaufort, was so impressed with Anderson that he approached her for instructions on how to create a similar position in the department of public safety. Anderson helped Foot write both the job description and the want ad. She participated in interviews and was instrumental in the election of Mary Madison for the Beaufort County Mental Health Coordinator position. Madison works with the Beaufort County Department of Corrections, not the police.

“Mary is also young and early in her career. So it’s good that we can bounce ideas off each other,” Anderson said.

Because there has never been a position like his at the Bluffton Police Department, Anderson has benefited from guidance from larger police forces that have created entire functions or units to address mental illness. Matthew Weatherly is a retired captain with the Baltimore Sheriff’s Department, which has a mobile crisis team that pairs specially trained officers with licensed mental health physicians to provide mental health services to people in crisis.

“He’s been really helpful in trying to get this off the ground, sending me policies and all kinds of stuff,” Anderson said.

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The Future of Mental Health Awareness in Bluffton

Both Frazier and Anderson hope their community will continue to work to end the negative perception surrounding mental health.

“There has been a stigma with mental health for so long. It has been an excuse for people to be treated a certain way and even criminalized,” Frazier said.

Anderson recently completed a 40-hour training program to become a Certified Crisis Intervention Trainer. He will first train officers in Bluffton on crisis intervention, including de-escalation techniques. She will then open the training up to officers from other departments, as well as any community members interested in the training.

Although Anderson is not a mental health counselor, she says that when she goes out, officers often take it out on her.

“Because they know I work in the mental health field and they know they’re not going to get out of the car,” he said. But he added: “No matter how hard I try to understand what they’re going through, I’ll never fully understand it because I’m not a police officer.”

When the new police chief takes office, Anderson plans to propose the creation of a peer support position. He would like to hire someone who is retired from law enforcement to work with members of the Bluffton force. Like the members of the community they serve, Anderson feels that officers’ mental health should be a priority. He also plans to propose that the department adopt a therapy dog.

“I went to the city of Beaufort and they have an emotional support dog, and their dog roams around the police department and patrol interacts with him. It’s a huge hit,” he said.

In the future, Frazier would like to see Anderson team up with the school resource officers.

“Our schools no longer have psychologists, therapists or social workers who work with behavior problems,” Frazier said.

Almost all that schools are currently doing in this field, according to Frazier, is assessing for learning disabilities to help develop learning plans. As a former educator, she remembers cases where a child was dealing with physical abuse at home or even contemplating suicide.

“Bridgette asked me if I could be another resource for the schools, and I’m definitely open to that,” Anderson said.

Frazier and Anderson would like to see Anderson’s position expanded to a full department, with social workers and mental health counselors on staff. Asked if there was room in the budget, Anderson replied, “They don’t pay a dime or a dime. They’re very willing to put things like that in the budget, to ensure that the police department continues to move in a progressive direction.”

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