Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Shawn Jansen
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Peace officers and mental health


August 9, 2018

“I think daily someone in our office deals with somebody that’s having some type of a mental health crisis, if you will, or needs some type of referral,” said Pine County Chief Deputy Paul Widenstrom in a recent interview.

Mental health calls that come in to law enforcement are mainly categorized as a mental health crisis or psychological problem, a suicide threat, or a suicide attempt, he said. According to his count, there were 307 mental health calls for those three categories combined over the last year that were handled by the Pine County Sheriff’s Office.

There are a few others, said Widenstrom. A request to check on someone’s welfare, for example, can turn out to be a mental health concern.

Widenstrom estimates about 25 percent of the people with whom local law enforcement deals with have a condition that can be considered a mental health diagnosis or are just plain dealing with a lot of stress, he said.

Widenstrom is in his 29th year serving in law enforcement. Before that it was corrections and a police explorer program.

“It’s more prevalent or pronounced,” said Widenstrom of dealing with mental health calls. He said part of the reason might be that it is getting easier for people to say they have a mental health disorder. Plus, he thought the fact that officers are receiving more training means mental health issues are more frequently recognized.

He also thinks in general the public is becoming more aware of mental health needs, especially as it pertains to people in the military and the post-traumatic stress disorder that can be associated with that.

Response to calls

When officers first respond to a mental health call, Widenstrom said they meet with the person if the person is present and have a conversation.

Officers ask, “What’s going on ... are you looking for help?”

“A large percentage of the people, I think, that we deal with make that call looking for that first step for help,” said Widenstrom.

A lot of people voluntarily go to a hospital to meet with someone and get that help, he said. Most people are transported to a hospital by ambulance. Emergency department staff can then make referrals for other services.

The Sheriff’s Department then compiles a report for each incident, and those reports are referred to Social Services, for adult or child protection as appropriate.

He said deputies tend to work in specific areas and get to know the people in the area.

“You learn to talk to people,” Widenstrom said. He finds that a lot of times law enforcement gets farther with de-escalation than using mace or a taser.

Referral follow-up

Becky Foss, Pine County Health and Human Services director, said in following up on those referrals, an individual with the diagnosis of a serious and persistent mental illness may receive mental health case management through the county. She said there are three adult mental health case managers who each have caseloads of 30-35 individuals. She said the county also contracts for services with other agencies such as Lighthouse Child and Family Services.

But she stressed, “Anyone can also access other mental health services, such as counseling, without a county case manager.” One resource is the peer support connection line. Anyone who may be depressed, lonely, or just needs someone to talk to can call 1 (844) 739-6369 from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. To see what kinds of mental health services are available in the area, one can check out the website

Foss also said getting help is “up to that individual.” Mental health services are voluntary, unless an individual is under commitment.

Training for deputies

Widenstrom said new deputies receive approximately 12 weeks of field training, and at least three deputies have received specialized crisis response/crisis negotiator training.

The Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Board now requires, as of July, continuing education credits in crisis intervention and mental illness crises, conflict management and mediation, as well as “Recognizing and Valuing Community Diversity and Cultural Differences to Include Implicit Bias” for license renewal. Other ongoing training offered by the department, Widenstrom said, includes an online training tool called Patrol which offers monthly topics and is recognized by the POST Board, as well as spring and fall in-service training hosted in-house in four-hour blocks. Deputies can also submit requests for other training opportunities.

He said they will have to watch to see if the training at the two-year college and academy level training incorporates these topics in the future.

He also sees mental health training being pertinent for dispatchers, jail and other staff members in addition to peace officers.

Peace officers’ mental health

Widenstrom says they’re finding out that witnessing trauma does seem to add up, and everyone in the first responder category of public safety is offered something called Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) debriefing within three or four days of an incident. Locally, they work with Essentia and Mercy hospitals to coordinate and line up a facilitator for the meetings. Restricted to those involved in responding to that particular incident, the debriefings are totally confidential.

“We do know people are showing up,” said Widenstrom.

The county also offers counseling for employees through the Employee Assistance Program, a program which is not restricted to those dealing with trauma.

Widenstrom says everyone has to find a positive way to release stress, whether it be going to the gym or going camping or listening to music.

“My zen time for me is cutting the grass,” said Widenstrom. “You have to leave work at work,” he said, in order to release stress and avoid burnout.

He said there are natural ups and downs, but it is everyone’s obligation to watch over each other in the department.

“We have a really good group of employees right now,” said Widenstrom.

He said he thinks the culture in the department is good regarding staff seeking help when needed.

“I think it’s better now than it has been in years past to reach out and say ‘I need help’,” he said. “It’s easier now than it used to be”.

He said there will always be the types who think they don’t need help or those who to turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate, and it’s a good thing when officers can identify when it is time for them to leave the field and do something different.

What else is needed

Widenstrom said he doesn’t believe there are enough beds for long-term mental health care to take care of the need in the state. It is one of his big frustrations dealing with an individual who wants help but finds that no space is available. He said there are people in jail and that’s where they need to be, but there are also people in jail who need to be evaluated and are waiting until a bed is available.

“Maybe someone in a crisis situation can’t afford to wait two weeks,” he said.


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