David Bilodeau of Tri-County Mental Health Services in Lewiston talks with Lewiston police officer Joe Philippon (reflected in mirror) during a recent ride-along. (Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham)

David Bilodeau of Tri-County Mental Health Services in Lewiston, right, talks with Lewiston police officer Joe Philippon during a shift earlier this week. (Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham)

LEWISTON — For 10 hours every week, crisis worker David Bilodeau rides in the front seat of a police car, waiting for a call to come through the scanner.

Since September, Bilodeau has accompanied officers as the Lewiston Police Department, in partnership with Bilodeau’s employer, Tri-County Mental Health, works to bring a long-scrapped program back to life.

It’s been about a decade since the Lewiston Police Department has had a crisis worker on staff. In 2008, the state cut funding for the full-time position, and Joe Philippon, Community Resource Officer, said the void left by the vacancy has long been palpable.

“It was a great resource for us to have on call,” Philippon said. “They went to anyone in crisis, and the second we (police) determined it was safe, we had the crisis worker there. It was a great model for us for a number of reasons: You have someone who has a clinical education in this type of stuff, and it took the stress off us.” 

Philippon said the department responds to at least two mental health calls per day, and many more calls related to substance use, and although police try, they aren’t properly trained to deal with mental health crises, or overdoses.

“I didn’t go to cop school to be a crisis worker,” Philippon. “We get some training, but I’m nothing near to a clinician.”

Recognizing the void, the department created a program called Project Support You, he said.

The project has a few intentional differences from the program that came before it. For one, Bilodeau wears street clothes — denim and a head rag — as opposed to the former blue, police-like uniforms worn by the crisis worker. Also, Bilodeau is both a licensed mental health counselor and a certified alcohol and drug counselor, allowing him to intervene in substance-use crises, including overdoses.

“When they see the police show up, they think, ‘I’m in trouble,’” Bilodeau said. “We’re trying to get them to think, ‘No, they’re trying to get you some help.’”

Bilodeau said he’s helped a few individuals — and families — receive support through the program. A few months ago, a family called back after seeing a poster pinned to their child’s door.

“We had one mother who didn’t even know her child overdosed and was so appreciative we were there not to arrest them,” Bilodeau said.

“She called her whole family, and by the time we got there, three other family members were thanking us and helping us connect with the individual,” Bilodeau said.

Mental illnesses and substance use are often intricately linked. Bilodeau said patients who appear psychotic sometimes rapidly stabilize once they’re treated for substance use.

Bilodeau described one patient who was homeless and sneaking into people’s homes to rest.

“We got them to hospital, agreed to start working with them,” he said. “I now have the individual housed and medicated, and the police haven’t got a call since they’ve been out of the hospital for a month. We’re making progress. It’s slow progress, but we’re making progress.”

Philippon said the ultimate goal of the program is to reduce the number of calls to police and police contact.

“The hope is they can come to a better solution where they don’t feel like they’re being forced into something,” he said. “They feel like they are part of it.” 

Philippon said 10 hours a week is a good start for the program, but it’s nowhere near enough — and that’s where Tri-County Mental Health comes in.

Tri-County currently “donates” the 10 hours to the Police Department. Catherine Ryder, executive director of Tri-County Mental Health Services, said the program makes sense, and is beneficial to both agencies.

“We can’t arrest our way out of it, and we can’t necessarily treat our way out of it,” Ryder said.

“(The police) were out there, boots on the ground, the most grass-roots social workers we have in our community, seeing people die in front of them on a daily basis and feeling pretty hopeless and helpless,” she said. “When we started this project, and they came to the table, both of the chiefs came to the table and assigned people immediately.”

She said the law enforcement people involved in the program are some of the most passionate and committed.

“They have helped to drive this forward by telling us what happens in real life, on the streets, every single day. We get to see it after the fact, when somebody has been to the emergency department. They had an overdose, and then they come to the agency afterwards,” Ryder said.

The next step is to try to find long-term funding from the state and revive the full-time position.

“We’re hoping, as we continue to go and build this program, it will help people climb out of that dark hole,” Philippon said.


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