Wayne Johnson wants to be proactive in improving behavioral health services and helping more people across Sandoval and Bernalillo counties steer clear of a jail cell.

Wayne Johnson

That’s why the Sandoval County manager is exploring the idea of putting “programmatic-type dollars” toward a mental-health triage center.

He said a triage center would be ideal to help people in crisis, whether it’s medical and/or behavioral, adding such a facility would be an alternative to jail when an individual comes into contact with law enforcement while displaying signs of distress or a mental health crisis. It would also be open for the general public.

He said the Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., models entail a walk-in service where employees can monitor people for 23 hours, stabilize them medically and work one-on-one with them.

“We don’t have anywhere in New Mexico that does that. I think it’s a key to really having an effective program for behavioral health and identifying those issues,” Johnson said, adding people who are struggling with behavioral health may have arrest records as a result. “They determine what your problem may be. Sometimes, it’s medical. Some cases, they would walk into the centers, and they’d be having a behavioral-health break because of their medications, like diabetic medications.”

Johnson said he hopes Sandoval County can partner with Bernalillo County on such a center and make it a regional effort.

He also said Bernalillo County is a prime example of what can happen if Sandoval County doesn’t start planning the “beginnings” of such a program, addressing issues that lead to criminal behavior.

The county commission unanimously OK’d two resolutions Nov. 18 to address behavioral health and reducing repeat criminal behavior, which Johnson said is part of a bigger package for the upcoming legislative session.

He said the state’s expecting an extra $2 billion in new revenue.

“We don’t have a robust program here yet in Sandoval County, but those dollars would help that become a reality,” Johnson said. “We have our issues, and we need to address them and be prepared to look a little farther into the future than we currently are.”

The current situation

Johnson said the Metropolitan Detention Center in Albuquerque is the state’s largest behavioral health center, meaning if the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office finds someone in crisis, they end up taking them to MDC, even if that person hasn’t committed a crime.

“What do you do with somebody like that that’s standing on a street corner howling at the moon, for a lack of a better example? What does that officer have? Well, (a triage center) is a place that they can take this person who’s obviously in crisis and has problems. Then they can assess them and determine where they need to go for services,” he said.

Johnson said a triage center can better determine whether someone’s having a mental break or is overwhelmingly distraught, is in dire need of insulin to manage their diabetes or may be high on opioids.

The goal’s simple: Get to the root cause and have it be a starting point for getting proper help.

“It kind of covers the complete spectrum,” Johnson said.

A proposed coordinated effort

He said the subject should be addressed as a regional matter, rather than just within city or county limits.

“I’d rather get ahead of the curve,” Johnson said.

A regional triage center could help people regardless of where in the metro area they lived or were found in crisis.

“We live in a metro area. We are many communities that make up a whole community together. And if we don’t address homelessness and substance abuse, recidivism — they’re all tied together from one level or the other — from a Sandoval County perspective, we will end up going through the same issues, going through the same pain that you see down the hill in Bernalillo County, the City of Albuquerque. It just tends to spread,” Johnson said. “We would want to find a way to work with our partners, work with our neighbors, work with the state to try and have some options for Sandoval County residents who find themselves in these straits.”

Johnson also said making it a coordinated effort in the Albuquerque metro area would be cost-effective.

“We’re all dealing with the same people,” he said.

The starting point

Psychologist Stacey Goldstein-Dwyer, president and CEO of GD Psych Services, said a triage center can help address a crisis “in the moment.”

“A lot of times, the crisis will happen late at night, early in the morning, weekends. That’s when people are usually closed, and access to care is limited. I think in those situations, it’s very helpful that they have some place to go, that we can minimize suicide attempts,” she said, adding a triage center can aid in setting that person up with the correct resources.

For those reluctant to make an appointment but need the care, Goldstein-Dwyer said a triage center can expand access by making it an informal process.

“It makes it easier with the fact that they’ve got the resources; they can do a warm handoff to a provider, who would then take on their care from there,” she said. “One thing that is hugely lacking in our community is that connection.”

Goldstein-Dwyer, who previously worked as the mental health director at a couple of jail facilities including MDC, also said people needing help are “already dealing with so much” and making that phone call for assistance can be overwhelming.

She said if the necessary care and follow-up work is provided to such people in the community, it’d reduce possible criminal behavior or the need for police to bring them to jail.

“The problem is, nobody should be getting that kind of mental health treatment inside of a jail. We should be able to provide it out in our communities, which we’re lacking,” she said.

Action at the state level?

Johnson said Sandoval County will meet with state legislators to make them aware of the county’s legislative priorities and will monitor progress during the next legislative session. Commissioners and staff will serve as expert witnesses as appropriate to help to move these priorities forward, he said.

He also said it remains unknown whether the state will take up behavioral health-related funding in the upcoming session, because it might not be considered germane to the 30-day state-budget-focused session.

The 2022 legislative session opens Jan. 18 and ends Feb. 17.