NEW BEDFORD, Mass. (WPRI) — May is Mental Health Awareness month and New Bedford police have officially launched a task force focused on the mental health crisis.
The department has had a task force for a couple of years to help people who may be addicted to drugs or are in a mental health crisis, but now with state funding and a designated eight officers, one mother told 12 News it’s made a difference.
“My son was in crisis. I have a special needs teenager. He has a slew of diagnoses,” she explained. “It got to the point where his safety was at risk, along with mine, so I had reached out to the police department.”
She said when she made the call, she was nervous about how the police response would affect her son, but moments later she was reassured her call was the right one.
“There were no flashing lights, they weren’t banging on the door or anything else,” she said. “They were very calm and they knew what they were doing, and it was really heartfelt and it meant a lot to me.”
Melissa Ahaesy, the diversion clinician working with New Bedford police, said she’s seeing the difference the team is making only three weeks into the job.
“It feels like they’re just taking this positive vibe, trying to get out on a very human to human level, and I really think this is history in the making,” she explained. “I hear ‘wow’ a lot when we say who we are, ‘we’re just checking in on you, this is just a wellness check, following up with a call that may have happened previously.’ There’s ‘wow, thank you so much.'”
The department has collaborated with community groups checking in on people in crisis, specifically overdoses, but this program is elevating their aid.
The program is funded by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health and the eight officers are trained in crisis response and can address most mental health issues.
“These officers have been handpicked,” program supervisor Sgt. Samuel Ortega said. “They have a natural ability of compassion and empathy.”
Ortega said the task force is especially important right now at a time when so many are struggling coming out of the pandemic, and the negative attitudes some have toward police.
“The ultimate goal for this team is to let the community know we’re here,” he said.
Police are additionally keeping a database of children in crisis so they can best respond in the future.
“I hear you. I understand,” the mother said. “It wasn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be. They really knew what they were doing, and that was all the assurance I needed.”