By Cindy Foster

Mental Health Calls Increasing at Sandoval County Medical Center

Sandoval County law enforcement agencies are seeing mental health crisis calls skyrocket - and those numbers are being reflected in visits to the Sandoval Regional Medical Center (SRMC) Emergency Department.

SRMC has been a resource for local law enforcement dealing with mental health crises in a number of ways since it opened. The hospital had to close its inpatient mental health facilities in 2017 but the mill levy on the ballot for November 6 would allow the hospital to expand its mental health services again in the community.

The Rio Rancho Police Department currently sees three to five mental health crisis calls daily, according to Lt. Nicholas Onkin, the Rio Rancho Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team leader.

The number of calls involving a mental health component has also climbed over the past four years, he says.

"Rio Rancho Police Department policy requires the department to transport people in mental health crisis to a local emergency room whenever possible," says Onken. In many cases, that means transport to SRMC.

"Patients in a severe mental health crisis are a risk both to themselves and their families, and situations can evolve until they become a risk to communities and first responders," says Drew Bartkus, director of SRMC's Emergency Department.

"It is important that our staff and others know how to respond to mental health emergencies," Bartkus says. " The challenge for us is that Sandoval County doesn't have an enormous amount of behavioral health resources."

In Rio Rancho, about half the police force has undergone an intensive 40-hour training in mental health issues. The department has also grown its crisis intervention and crisis negotiation teams, but such resources are severely limited in rural areas of the county.

SRMC's location also help rural area ambulance crews when transporting patients in crisis, says Sandoval County Fire Chief James Maxon.

"We believe it benefits the community when mental health patients can stay close to their homes and families, and it also clears up our resources so we don't have to move out of county," he says.

The November 6 mill levy would authorize a number of positions to address training and specifically allow SRMC to add crisis intervention teams to work alongside law enforcement and first responders, as well as add 24/7 behavioral health providers to the Emergency Department.

SRMC already provides some psychological services as an integrated part of its family practice clinics.

"Having services accessible through primary care reduces the stigma of asking for help," says Christopher Morris, PhD, clinical psychologist and director of the soon-to-open UNM Community Behavior Health Clinic located adjacent to the hospital.

"It doesn't mean a long-term commitment either," Morris says. "Many of our patients have seen a great deal of benefit in just a few visits spread out over several months."

The mill levy would also provide for an expansion of training and resources for providing psychological services through the hospital's primary care clinics.

"Mental health issues are challenging," he says. "We need to make sure that our hospital staff are supported in providing our patients with the help that they need."