Joint Mental Health Response Clinician joins Shrewsbury Police

Jessica Atwood is the Collaborative Response Clinician for the Shrewsbury Police Department’s New Jail Diversion Program. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

SHREWSBURY – The Shrewsbury Police Department responded to nearly 1,000 mental health calls between 2017 and 2021.

That marks a 38 percent increase over the previous five-year period, according to Chief Kevin Anderson.

Enter Jessica Atwood, who is the new clinician for the department’s prison diversion program.

“While our officers are excellent at what they do, we must recognize that they are police officers, not licensed mental health professionals with formal mental health training,” Anderson said in a recent news release.

Police see spike in mental health calls

Seeing an increase in mental health calls, the department sought an individual to help provide a higher level of service to residents in crisis.

Atwood, who began her role in April, told the Community Advocate last week that working with the Shrewsbury Police Department has been going “great” so far.

“Everyone was so welcoming,” she said. “It is [a] change for everyone because it’s a whole new position.”

“In a short period of time, from emergency to follow-up, she was a tremendous asset,” Anderson said. “She built a really good relationship with the community.”

Atwood grew up near Lowell and Chelmsford, although she has lived in Worcester County for the past six years.

She has spent about 12 years in her current profession, working for the Framingham-based human services agency Advocates since 2016.

“I’ve always had an interest in psychology and criminal justice,” Atwood said.

Her first job in the field included working as a mental health technician in the emergency department of Lowell General Hospital.

While working at the hospital, Atwood met with clinicians who evaluated patients in the emergency department.

“I once asked a clinician, ‘How do I get your job?'” Atwood recalled.

That question led her to return to graduate school before eventually interning and later being hired by Advocates.

Discussions about the clinician date back years

As Anderson described it, the process of bringing in someone with Atwood’s skills dates back to his boss interview.

Anderson put together a one-year strategic plan that included an evaluation of the department’s responses to mental health and people in crisis. Anderson wanted to look at training that focused on the department’s responses and its ability to identify people in crisis.

He also wondered if the department should have a crisis intervention team and hire a mental health clinician.

After he was officially hired as chief, Anderson really began to overhaul the department.

“One of the things we decided was there was a need for a mental health clinician,” he said.

The police department received approval for funds for the position as part of the fiscal year 2022 budget.

Lt. Nick Perna then worked with Advocates to secure a roughly $300,000 grant through the state Department of Mental Health.

The grant is valid for three years, supporting Atwood’s position for that period. It also leaves room for renewal after that period.

Other communities bring in clinicians

In launching its collaborative response program, Shrewsbury joins other communities that have also worked with Advocates on similar efforts.

Such regional communities include Hudson, Marlborough, Northborough, Southborough and Westborough.

The first Advocates Collaborative Response program started in Framingham in 2003. Marlborough followed in 2008. Hudson joined in 2018. Westborough, Southborough and Northborough are partners as of 2019.

Clinician starts work in Shrewsbury

Back in Shrewsbury, Atwood started working at the Shrewsbury Police Department in April after six weeks of training.

As part of her job, she responds alongside police officers to calls ranging from people in psychiatric crisis to domestic assaults to senior services cases.

“[I] assess them, help de-escalate the situation and get them the appropriate resources and treatment they may need,” Atwood said.

She said this helps avoid “unnecessary” emergency room visits.

Shrewsbury officers said Atwood is a great asset to the department, Anderson said.

One of the department’s goals is also to divert people with mental illness and substance use disorders to the health care system rather than the justice system.

All Shrewsbury staff have undergone several mental health trainings over the past year. Some are also sent to crisis intervention training.

“At the end of the day, it’s the best outcome for the person involved,” Anderson said. “With Jess on the scene, she can know the signs to identify someone with emotional or mental health issues and get them the appropriate services they need.”

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