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Pandemic delays hiring of staff for Columbia mental health crisis unit

city of columbia night
ABC 17 News


Nearly a year after Columbia city manager John Glascock announced a new unit to handle emergency calls involving mental health crises, the unit remains unstaffed.

Glascock added seven positions in the fiscal year 2021 budget revealed in July to create a "public safety mental health collaboration with the Police Department." Health leaders say they hope to create a fourth kind of first responder unit in the county, which would dispatch to emergency calls involving someone having a mental health problem. Supporters of the unit hope it will stop dangerous conflicts between the person and law enforcement and help the person get mental health resources.

The city has struggled to find the licensed clinical social workers necessary to staff the unit, human services manager Steve Hollis told ABC 17 News. Hollis said the pandemic created a greater demand for social workers in other agencies. It also made it more difficult for existing health department staff to launch a new program within the city.

The delay, according to activist Roy Lovelady of People's Defense, has stopped the city from gathering data on how the program will work, like demand for the service and timing of calls for help.

"Please, please, please, let's get this task force up and running yesterday," Lovelady said.

The Columbia City Council approved a pay bump for the social work supervisor position on Monday. Hollis said a higher salary for the position may make it more attractive to those in the social services field. A job posting on the city's website lists a minimum yearly salary of $54,780 and a midpoint price of $71,158. The listing said the city is taking applications until June 11.

"I actually have folks I know that would be excellent candidates who said they would love to take the job, but they can't take that kind of pay cut to start and supervise a brand new program," Hollis said.

Lovelady said the issue of raising pay shouldn't stop the creation of the unit.

"All we have to do is get somebody who's passionate about it, who's willing to get out there and get the work done, and then if we see a demand, then we give them a pay bump," Lovelady said.

At the same time, the 13th Judicial Circuit Court is using $33,755 in grant money it got from the state to hire a consultant to help develop the unit. It will also use $5,000 to make virtual site visits to communities with similar mental health resources and units, such as Miami/Dade County and Tuscon, Arizona. Court administrator Mary Epping said the consultant would help them set goals for the unit by reviewing what mental health resources exist already and how the city and courts can improve. Bids for the consultant job will close in June.

Hollis said he has long seen the need for this type of unit in Columbia. He envisions a "mobile response unit" staffed by five or six clinical social workers with one supervisor to guide the work. Other possible models for the team include a "co-responder" unit, which would pair a social worker with a law enforcement officer to respond.

"This is not a criticism, but the simple question is, 'Why as a society do we send police officers to mental health crises?" Hollis said. "We don't do that for heart attacks, we don't do that for any other health issue."

The health department and courts are no strangers to mental health projects. The city and county worked on a mapping project in 2016 and 2019 to figure out what resources exist in town. The jail screens people for mental health needs. Associate Circuit Judge Tracy Gonzalez said sustaining that help for people once it's identified is one of the biggest road blocks.

"I think that we're limited in the criminal justice system because once they've entered the system, you're limited as to what resources are available," Gonzalez said.

Leaders are hopeful the state will select Boone County for a crisis stabilization center. State lawmakers kept Governor Mike Parson's suggested $15 million item to fund the centers. Law enforcement would have the choice to take someone to a center for mental health treatment rather than incarceration.

"We see enough individuals who we are letting out without that follow up," Gonzalez said. "There's enough need here in our community that those people will not even go to the Boone County Jail on those minor transgressions. If we have that access center, they will be able to get that help there."

Burrell Behavioral Health runs such a facility in Springfield. Chief operating officer Adam Andreassen said the center allows law enforcement to take someone to a place stocked with mental health resources, rather than an emergency room at a hospital or jail.

"The analogy that I've started using to really help bring this home is instead of a T intersection, we offer more of a roundabout opportunity," Andreassen said. You come into our setting, you get your help or your next lane of care, so to speak."
Burrell Behavioral Health chief operating officer Adam Andreassen explains what a crisis stabilization center is.

Hollis said a crisis center could create a more efficient way for the city to handle mental health crises. A law enforcement officer could take them to the center for care, rather than waiting to admit them to a hospital.

"If the police officer winds up trying to get somebody admitted, it takes hours and hours and hours, and that cop just winds up, and that deputy winds up getting stranded there for a long time," Hollis said.

Lucas Geisler

Lucas Geisler anchors the 5 p.m. show for ABC 17 News and reports on the latest news around mid-Missouri at 9 and 10 p.m.


1 Comment

  1. The “pandemic” created none of these issues. The willful destruction of our economic, social, and mental health in response to it did. Despite of the insanity of doing so to contain a virus a bit more dangerous than ordinary. The sales of alcohol in the US went up FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT in 2020. ‘nough said.

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