First Step of Sarasota Announces Formation of Behavioral Health Response Team, Partnering with Law Enforcement

SARASOTA, Fla., Dec. 15, 2020 — First Step of Sarasota today announced the formation of a Behavioral Health Response Team (BHRT), a pilot program for individuals with critical behavioral health needs and their families.  This service, a collaboration with the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office and Sarasota Police Department, will focus on providing a system of care within the community for those who are in crisis because of behavioral health needs. 

The goal of this pilot program is to lessen trauma, divert cases from emergency departments, prevent unnecessary psychiatric hospitalizations and collaborate with law enforcement when high need individuals are having a behavioral health crisis.  

The Behavioral Health Response Team is a 24/7/365 service that can respond to homes, hospitals, offices or any other site in the community to meet with a high-need individual aged 18 and older in their normal environment, thereby eliminating stress.  The BHRT team will address the needs of the individuals by creating a safety plan that is unique to that individual, providing personalized, person-centered care.  The safety plan will be recorded with the BHRT team and law enforcement and it will identify coping mechanisms, supports that are in place, individualized triggers and any psychiatric advance directives. 

First Step CEO Gwen MacKenzie said, “As we think about the stress of our current times, it is entirely appropriate for us as a helping organization to think about meeting people with mental illness or substance use challenges as early as we can and in a setting they feel safe in. We hope that, through these approaches, to prevent crises and acute events. We are fortunate to have the collaboration of law enforcement and their leadership.”  

The Behavioral Health Response Team will use experienced, masters-level and licensed clinicians in partnership with psychiatrists and law enforcement to provide therapeutic interventions in the community in addition to on-site services.  The team will be trained in crisis intervention skills to ensure timely access to supports and services.    

Sarasota Police Chief Bernadette DiPino said, “The Sarasota Police Department is proud to partner with First Step on this important initiative.  We have been working for a long time to implement a response program to address mental health issues in our community.

“While our officers receive crisis response training, having a trained professional work with high-need individuals will take a burden off of law enforcement, ultimately benefitting the individual, their family, and our community," DiPino said. "We look forward to implementing this pilot program as well as future partnership initiatives with First Step.”  

The Behavioral Health Response Team will also be extremely effective dealing with the added challenges of the pandemic. COVID-19 has added to isolation and socioeconomic stressors. exacerbating underlying issues for individuals with depression and anxiety.  This leads to higher likelihood of mental health problems, addiction issues and suicide.  

Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight, who is also incoming CEO of First Step, noted, “This team is an outgrowth of the national conversation about the sometimes difficult intersection of policing and mental health issues. We are proud to be taking proactive steps to create a system that works for our community.

"As it evolves," he said, "we envision that people with mental health issues and their family members will have a place to call not only during a crisis but well before, reducing unnecessary law enforcement actions and preventing worst-case scenarios.  We hope to see this become a model for our region and state.”

About First Step of Sarasota

First Step of Sarasota finalized its consolidation with Coastal Behavioral Healthcare on July 1, 2020.  The coming together of these two agencies will create more impactful solutions for those individuals with mental health and addiction disorders.  First Step of Sarasota has seven outpatient offices, four residential programs for adults and youth, the crisis stabilization unit and detox/addiction receiving facility and 15 community outreach, prevention and intervention programs for adults and youth.  First Step of Sarasota has 276 licensed beds, serves Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto Counties and is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities.  

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