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In Cedar Rapids, mental health calls get a helping hand

Gazette - 2/10/2019

Feb. 10--CEDAR RAPIDS -- Every day is different for Nicole Watters, whether it's helping a homeless man everybody else has given up on or talking to a teenager who feels suicide is her only way to stop the pain.

What doesn't change is Watters' ultimate goal as a crisis counselor and law enforcement liaison -- to keep mentally ill people out of jail.

"Sometimes, people just need someone to talk to or sometimes they need more," Watters, 41, of Marion, said.

She is part of an innovative partnership between Foundation 2 and Cedar Rapids police: Officers can call her any time to help diffuse a situation with someone who has mental health issues.

"The officers have compassion for these people and try to help, but they also have a job to do and they are being sent from one call to another," she said.

Watters, who has crisis intervention skills, can spend time with people, lend support and figure out what they need. She also can help with follow-up resources, like sending those in need to the appropriate family therapist or arranging a mental health assessment within 24 hours.

She started working with the officers last March in this first-of-its kind program in Iowa. Foundation 2 and the Cedar Rapids Police Department wrote a federal grant program to plan and implement a "co-responder" plan -- embedding a counselor with police. Some other states have similar programs.

Drew Martel, mobile crisis outreach manager with Foundation 2, said law enforcement officers in Iowa have become the first responders to most mental health crises because of the lack of treatment facilities. S jails are serving as those.

He realized professionals in mental health and law enforcement have different cultures, so it was important to find someone "who could walk in both worlds."

Watters was a "perfect fit." She previously had worked as a mobile crisis counselor for Foundation 2 and a mental health counselor with Mercy Medical Center and the Abbe Center.

It was important to Watters that she gain the officers' trust, so she did some police ride-alongs before officially being hired to see how they worked together.

"We have worked well as a team," Watters said. "The officers can do their job and I can go in and listen and offer support. That's what someone in crisis needs. I don't go in and start throwing resources at them. Sometimes, it's a suicide that's completed."

One call she went on was a mother who found her son. He had shot himself in the forehead. The mom was "devastated. I just sat with her."

Watters said over time, she and officers have gotten into a rhythm on these calls. When they sense the "cop uniform" is intimidating the person, the officer backs off and Watters steps in. Or if the person wants to talk to an officer instead, Watters steps back.

She is the first one to admit she doesn't have all the answers, but she can spend the time to find solutions. As part of her job, she goes out and make contacts in the community to find new resources and more help -- whether it be a treatment facility, psychologist or a counselor for a specific issue.

She also tries to meet those more vulnerable in the community who she may run into later.

Last summer, Watters would hang out in downtown's Greene Square, where sometimes homeless people go, and she would take bottled water to hand out. She talked to them to let them know she was around.

Watters is called on throughout the day by patrol officers and school resource officers. Many days are non-stop, but others are slower.

Officer Charity Hansel, school resource officer at Kennedy High School, said Watters has made a big impact.

With students, she's less intimidating without a uniform -- meaning they might be more open to her than an officer.

"I love for her to be here," Hansel said. "We have six counselors at Kennedy for 1,800 kids. They are spread so thin. It's great to have Nicole who can focus on mental health issues and follow up with the kids in their homes."

Watters said many times it's difficult to get to the root of the problem without finding out what's going on at home.

In one follow up, a mother brought her 6-year-old son to the police station. He had been sent home with a note from the principal, telling her to take him to the station -- in an attempt to "scare him straight."

Watters said the boy was "scared to death and crying." The mother was upset, saying she's not a bad mom and her other kids behave. Watters tried to be supportive and calm them down.

The child was hyperactive and being disruptive at school. So she got the child in for an assessment and gave the mother other resources.

"That was horrible," Watters said. "That wasn't going to help the boy for an officer to yell at him, which no officer would."

Watters already has seen a difference this program has made. She pointed to one success story that likely wouldn't have happened without her determination.

A homeless man was being a "nuisance" to everybody, Watters said. He would get picked up all over town for trespassing. She got him into the hospital on a mental committal, but he was released. He would get arrested again; she sent him back to hospital; and the he would get released and arrested again.

"He was a big guy and just more intrusive -- not violent," Watters said. "I think he was bi-polar, manic and he was paranoid. He didn't know boundaries. After being released again from the hospital on a commitment, within four weeks the police had 65 calls on him. He was trespassing and starting fires. He didn't follow through with mental health treatment or meds."

Watters finally got him into a facility in Iowa City that helped. When he was released this time, he was stable and the staff said he was nice and helpful person. He was in the process of getting a job when he left the facility.

"Without intervention, he wouldn't have been saved," Watters said.

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