Lake Mary police partnership keeps mentally ill out of ERs, away from police confrontations

Ground-breaking partnership with social workers, doctors, churches, pharmacies fulfills individualized needs

LAKE MARY, Fla. – The Emergency Room at South Seminole Hospital in Longwood, like most across Central Florida lately, has become a very busy place.

COVID-19 patients have taken over beds, doctors and supplies, leaving even less for the mentally ill. South Seminole, however, is the agreed-upon hospital where police or paramedics bring patients who are being held under the Baker-Acted -- those in mental health crisis required to be hospitalized for their own safety.

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Jaclyn Sokolowsky, director of emergency services at South Seminole and the Orlando Health Emergency Room in Lake Mary, said Baker Acts are complicated, lengthy and taxing for both staff and the patient.

“We take the patients, we assess them, they will be seen by an RN but also a medical provider, so a physician will see them,” Sokolowsky said. “They will receive care, they will be seen in our ER and then they’ll wait for a bed on the in-patient side, or in a facility that would best suit their needs.”

But Baker-Acting is not always the most effective treatment for someone in mental health crisis, and an Emergency Room is also not the most effective treatment location, according to Sokolowsky.

“You want to see a psychologist, you want to have your bed, and the Emergency Room is not a quiet environment necessarily,” Sokolowsky said.

So earlier this year, Sokolowsky and her hospitals joined the Mental Health Intervention Group (MHIG) - a network of partners, put together by the Lake Mary Police Department. Partners include counselors, social workers, pharmacists, food panties, pastors, rabbis and hospitals.

The partners go to the mentally ill and bring them the help they need to stay out of the hospital.

Officer Zach Hudson of the Lake Mary Police Department, with the blessing of his police chief, created MHIG in February.

“It’s common for us to Baker Act folks five-six or seven times,” Hudson said. “That should never happen.”

Hudson said since February, 51 people in mental health crisis, identified by police and the hospitals, agreed to take help from MHIG’s partners.

“And of those 51, only two of those individuals have been Baker-Acted since we saw them, so that’s really an incredible number,” Hudson said. “So these are 51 people we otherwise might never have gotten to. Or might have ended up in the system to where we had to confront them?. It could have been tragic. It could have resulted in a death. So we’re having an impact with this program here in Lake Mary.”

Sokolowsky confirmed the impact. She said since MHIG started, Baker Acts, new and repeat, have dropped.

“So what we’re doing is keeping most of those people from coming back,” Sokolowsky said. “It’s exciting. It’s showing you right there that the community needed this and it’s moving in the right direction.”

MHIG’s partners include counselors for adults and children in mental health crisis.

Jamie Grover, who founded the Special Needs Advocacy Program in Sanford, is MHIG’s child mental health counselor.

“During the pandemic, I would say the need for our services tripled,” Grover said. “We had families that were losing their jobs, we had children that were no longer at brick-and-mortar schools.”

Grover said some children are struggling with their mental health to the point of considering suicide.

When the police come into contact with a child and refer Grover to the child, Grover will call the family and, if the parent agrees, begin counseling with the child in his Sanford office.

Likewise, if a child ends up Baker-Acted at the hospital, Grover will also get the referral.

Grover volunteers his counseling services entirely for free and so do the 31 social workers who’ve partnered with MHIG that make at-home visits once a patient in crisis has been identified and agrees to counseling.

The social workers identify the need, whether it’s food, medication, or in some cases home maintenance, and fulfill that need.

Last month, volunteers from Northland Church in Longwood, a MHIG partner, cleaned up a yard for a woman struggling with her mental health.

Hudson said the woman not being able to maintain her yard was adding to her mental health stress.

“You don’t want to wait until a person gets the point of crisis,” Hudson said. “If they’re in crisis, we want to make sure we’re getting these individuals help. And that’s what this program does. We prevent those people from getting Baker-Acted at all.”

Counselor Jamie Grover said some of the 51 people who have been referred to MHIG since its inception were children. But his counseling has helped keep those children out of crisis.

“I haven’t lost the kid yet and I haven’t had a kid Baker-Acted yet,” Grover said.

The biggest challenge MHIG is facing right now is bills need to be paid. Most of MHIG’s partners, like Grover, volunteer their services and offered to do so to get MHIG up and running.

Now, however, the City of Lake Mary is looking at how to fund MHIG to start paying the partners to sustain their services and the program.

Until now, MHIG has survived on donations. If you’d like to donate or learn more, click here.

Hudson said MHIG needs more partners, especially houses of worship.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.