Lake County COAST helping police take new approach to mental health crises

CHICAGO (CBS) — Only on 2: there’s been a push across the country to rethink…

CHICAGO (CBS) — Only on 2: there’s been a push across the country to rethink policing when it comes to mental health crises, and the Lake County Sheriff’s Department was one of the first in the Chicago area to put together a specialized team.

Five years later, the Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST) has more than doubled the number of calls they respond to.

CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey is digging into the numbers and what they mean.

When paramedics responded to a call in Beach Park on March 27, a man in his 20s was having a bipolar episode, and ran from the first responders trying to help him, and into oncoming traffic.

Three sheriff’s deputies, with the help of a specialized mental health-focused team, blocked off traffic, and coaxed him out of harm’s way.

“Because of the COAST team being there, it was kind of the best of both worlds happened, and the person was actually from there, taken for some services,” saving not just him, but potentially the lives of unsuspecting drivers, according to COAST director Sgt. Jim Yanecek.

COAST pairs a mental health clinician with specially trained deputies and officers from the area.

“At the end of the day, not every incident needs someone arrested, and not every incident needs somebody ticketed; but somehow, someway, the police were called. So we’re here to help,” Yanecek said.

Yanecek said it’s not just the on-the-spot intervention, it’s the follow-up that’s important.

COAST team members can drop off subjects at the Living Room Wellness Center 24-hour respite home, where they can get access to continued care. Subjects have a place to relax, borrow some new clothes, do their laundry, and get access to important mental health services.

The man who the COAST team helped last week was one of 215 mental health calls the team got just this year, and those numbers have exploded; from 211 mental-health related calls in 2018 to more than 1,575 calls last year.

It’s not that there are necessarily more mental health issues. It’s that officers are learning to spot it and flag these cases for extra help.

“If you don’t understand what you’re seeing, then you’re gonna miss a lot. These officers are now having the ability to understand what a mental health incident is,” Yanecek said.

The team is similar to a specialized team in Chicago, which launched a Crisis Assistance and Response Engagement pilot program in 2021 to have a team consisting of a paramedic, mental health clinician, and a police officer trained in crisis intervention respond to mental health calls to 911 in two neighborhoods. That pilot program was expanded to four more neighborhoods.

Yanecek says data from COAST is good enough evidence for other departments that might be thinking of creating a similar team to go through with it.

“At the end of the day, it’s a medical issue that needs to be addressed. It’s just how the public perceives it,” he said.

The COAST team is hoping to expand, but it will need more clinicians and other agencies to join their partnership.