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A Chat with Unity – Mental Health Awareness and Law Enforcement

What is your name and what is your position at CommUnity?

My name is Unity Stevens and I am the Mental Health/Law Enforcement Liaison for Iowa County.

As a Mental Health/Law Enforcement Liaison with law enforcement, what do you do?

My role has two primary aspects. One of the key components is being available to respond on scene with law enforcement to calls that have a mental health crisis component to it. Sometimes that looks like a situation with suicidal ideation and sometimes that can look like a non-violent family disputes that requires mediation. There’s a range of things we can use crisis de-escalation and mediation skills in, honestly. The second primary component to this role is providing follow ups with clients that I have either met on scene or that law enforcement has passed on to me through a referral. For some clients that could look like coordinating longer term supports, coordinating with other providers to provide consistent care, checking in with them regularly myself, or even facilitating care team meetings with all of their service providers to brainstorm any potential gaps in their current care and to address those if they do exist. There’s a lot of flexibility to help clients access what they need most!

What do you want our supporters to know this Mental Health Awareness Month?

I would most like our supporters to know that the work we do is so impactful to the people that we serve. It’s no secret that the state of mental health in Iowa is a significant barrier to so many folks. The reality is that our psychiatric bed availability per 100,000 people is ranked last in the nation. When you pair that with nearly as poor availability for licensed psychiatrists and limited community support in rural areas, we’re faced with a massive demand for help that agencies like CommUnity try to prop up. Inadvertently, though, mental illness is often criminalized because those folx are more likely to have law enforcement contacts and to struggle regulating their emotions during those interactions. Having the liaison position available in Iowa County to help serve those rural communities in this capacity has really opened our eyes to how much of a need there is for help here. The support and funding that makes this work possible is truly changing the lives of community members, as well as lifting a burden from law enforcement and the criminal justice system. It is deeply impactful, and I genuinely appreciate those who support what we do!

Have you seen a shift in mental health awareness in law enforcement agencies?

Absolutely! Based on the conversations I’ve had with my law enforcement partners, as well as the trends I’ve seen come up over the last few years in other agencies, they recognize how important and debilitating these issues can be. What seems to be most difficult for them is not understanding that there are legitimate needs and issues to be addressed, but that there are limited avenues of support for those people and that it isn’t within their ability to handle all of that themselves. Outside of those agencies who do have the opportunity to connect with a Liaison or designated Jail Diversion personnel, they have three options in these interactions: handle the reason for the call and leave the person in the environment, take them to the hospital, or take them to jail. Because the scope of their role is not the mental health or social work-related things folx often need, they are limited in how much they can do to address the root cause of the issue. When dealing with folx who utilize law enforcement regularly it can be challenging to hold on to that unconditional positive regard if it feels like a never ending cycle.

For communities that are hesitant to reach out for mental health support, what piece of advice do you have?

Mental health needs are akin to the need for oxygen in that not providing mind and body with care to address mental health can be as debilitating as lacking life-sustaining oxygen. Similarly, it can absolutely lead to death if it gets severe enough or goes untreated for long enough. To help keep our minds and bodies functioning optimally it’s really important to seek support when something isn’t feeling right. Whether that’s utilizing 988 services to talk with a confidential crisis counselor for mental health needs like you may use QuickCare or 911 for physical ailments, or seeing a counselor like you would for wellness visits at a doctor’s office.

I usually share that those of us who are in the helping field often seek support as well and sometimes use therapy as needs arise because we’re people who struggle sometimes, too. I would encourage them to do their best to be sure they are getting enough sleep, hydrating, and taking small pockets of time throughout the day to set aside their worries temporarily either through meditation, writing, or some other activity beneficial for them to help exercise self-care without outside support.

What is your favorite way to practice self-care?

I have a couple of really great ways that I like to practice self-care! Lately, I’ve used the Calm app either on my way to or from work to help decompress. I gravitate towards creative problem solving automatically, so shutting that process down when my day is through or I need a mental break with meditations found in the app are so beneficial. I used to use guided meditations through YouTube, as well, before I had a subscription.

Another way that I like to practice self-care, when I’m able, is reading (or listening to an audiobook). My passion for fun reading was dormant for a while, but one day a year-and-a-half-ago, a book sparked my interest, and I ended up reading the entire thing that day. The opportunity to set my own worries aside to see life through the mind of a fictional character is really therapeutic for me.

Is there anything else you would like people to know?

The main thing I would want folx to know is that if something feels hard for you, you are as deserving of mental health support and connection to services as anyone else. Sometimes we tend to compare our struggle to someone else’s and think that since it’s not as bad as they had it, then our hard thing isn’t deserving of support. Youget to define what is hard for you. Youhave the power to use the words to describe that to others. You are enoughto deserve support.