Georgia Senate passes bill to address mental health non-emergency calls

The Georgia Senate on Thursday unanimously passed legislation that could lead to teams trained in dealing with mental health crises responding to emergency calls typically handled only by police officers.

Georgia officials are trying to properly treat people suffering from mental health issues that don’t result in sending them to jail or, in some cases, getting hurt by officers who aren’t adequately trained.

“We’ve recognized that our jail is not a mental health facility and is not the best place to have people (suffering a mental health crisis),” said state Sen. Ben Watson, a Savannah Republican who sponsored the measure.

Senate Bill 403 would task community service boards — panels that work with the state to provide mental health, disability and addiction services — with creating guidelines for a “co-responder program” where behavioral health professionals join law enforcement officers when responding to emergency calls involving a mental health crisis.

Community service boards would be required to have someone who can be available on call to respond with police when needed. Law enforcement agencies that choose to participate in the program would also designate officers who would respond to mental health crises. Law enforcement agencies would not be required to participate in the program.

There are currently six similar programs operating across the state, including in Chatham, Cobb and Athens-Clarke counties, that have experienced a drop in the number of arrests of people having mental health issues, Watson said.

In Chatham County, for example, mental health professionals and police officers in plain clothes and unmarked cars respond to an emergency call for someone having a psychotic breakdown, Watson said.

The bill’s passage comes as legislators, including House Speaker David Ralston, have made mental health issues a priority this session. House Bill 1013 aims to expand access to mental health services in Georgia by, among other things, requiring insurance companies to cover mental health care the same way they cover physical health care and establishing state grants for outpatient treatment. The bill was approved by a House committee on Wednesday.

SB 403 now goes to the House for its consideration.


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