A Ramsey County mental health worker will be embedded with Maplewood police and other first responders in an effort to "decriminalize mental illness."

The Ramsey County Board approved the move Tuesday, assigning one of its mental health professionals to work full time with the suburb's police, fire and ambulance service.

"We need to decriminalize mental health issues and this is the way to do it," said Maplewood Mayor Marylee Abrams. "If we can get early intervention with health and human services resources, hopefully we can make a lasting change in peoples' lives and help them avoid going into full-blown crisis."

Maplewood is the first Ramsey County suburb to partner with the county in this way. St. Paul police started embedding social workers with officers in 2018.

About 900 of Maplewood's nearly 13,000 emergency medical and police calls, roughly 7%, were mental health related, including 51 calls for suicides in progress, according to Maplewood Fire Chief Michael Mondor.

Some people call 911 a dozen times or more per month describing emotional crisis including hallucinations and suicidal thoughts, according to first responders.

In response, Maplewood police and firefighters/paramedics formed the mental health outreach team within its own ranks in 2019. Until now, they worked without the assistance of trained social and mental health staff.

The team reaches out to those frequent 911 callers who exhibit symptoms of mental illness and their families, offering to meet regularly to discuss how they can help.

Sometimes, it is connecting people to services. Other times, it is encouraging them to stick to their already-prescribed therapy and medication routines. In all cases, it is a calmer, safer opportunity to talk through issues than a panicked 911 call.

But there's a limit to the time and expertise police and paramedics devote to case management, Mondor said.

This allows for a coordinated handoff to a county professional who can connect people with services and long-term case management, Mondor said.

Maplewood Public Safety Director Scott Nadeau said this strategy reduces arrests and emergency situations that can escalate quickly.

"The more you are dragging mentally ill people into the criminal justice system, it's a worse outcome for them and it's a worse outcome for our community," Nadeau said.

County commissioners praised the new partnership as communities across Minnesota and the country explore new strategies vs. traditional police/fire/EMS emergency response.

"I think it's so critical to community health and community public safety," said Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt, who represents Maplewood. "If there is a mental health crisis happening, they need the services we provide."

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037