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Taking the time to care

People

Hannah Anderson hired as mental health advocate at Bluffton PD

By Clay Bonnyman Evans | Photo by Madison Elrod

Law-enforcement officers potentially put their lives in jeopardy every time they make a call. Encounters with a person having a mental-health crisis can be particularly complex, time-consuming and fraught with potential for tragic misunderstanding.

With that in mind, communities across the United States have over the past three decades launched collaborations between police and mental-health advocates that have reduced the use of force and injuries to both officers and citizens in precarious situations, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.  

But few police departments have resources to help people and families in distress after a call. Now, in a first for South Carolina, the Town of Bluffton has created a position to do just that.

 “Our officers really care about what happens to people after they leave the call. But they don’t really have time to care,” says Hannah Anderson, 28, who was hired as the Bluffton Police Department’s first Community Mental Health Advocate in November. “I see myself as that person who does have the time to care. I am a beacon of hope for officers. Instead of, ‘Well, good luck with that,’ they can bring me in.”

When officers by necessity step out, Anderson steps in.

“Someone calls 911, there is a crisis. But that only lasts so long, and attention to the root causes, the things someone needs help with after the crisis — we can direct our citizens to available resources they may not know exist,” says Police Chief Stephenie Price, who has stressed the importance of mental-health issues since coming aboard in October 2020. “That is exactly what Hannah does.”

Anderson has enthusiastically created the position from the ground up. When she arrived in November, it was mostly case management: Officers would send an email alerting her to a situation, and she would follow up with a call to see if a person or family wanted help finding additional resources.  

“I make it clear, I am not a licensed clinician, I am not the resource. But I can get them in touch with resources,” she says. 

For example, she recently visited a person with mental illness in jail following their arrest in a high-profile incident. She helped them create a post-release plan of action and reached out to their mental-health provider to apprise them of the situation. 

“I feel like there is no communication between law enforcement and mental-health providers. I’m trying to bridge that gap,” she says. “The whole point is to prevent something like that happening again.”

But Anderson wasn’t content to sit at her desk waiting for emails. She was soon co-responding to calls with officers on request, sporting a tan tactical vest prominently displaying her title. 

“It’s (the officers’) show. I’m just there for help,” says Anderson, who focused on forensic — e.g. criminal — psychology for her master’s degree. “Sometimes it helps to see everything in person or provide resources on the scene, give them my business card.”

Ten months into the job, she joins patrol officers for two full-shift “ride-alongs” every week, which has given her insight into the challenges of the job. She’s also certified in Crisis Intervention Training and the department is paying for her to become a CIT instructor in the fall, which will allow her to provide in-house training. 

With more than 125 calls and 300-plus hours of ride-alongs under her belt, Anderson has built a solid foundation for the department’s fledgling mental-health program. Now she’s excited about plans to expand, including the planned hiring of a mental-health officer “to kind of be my sworn counterpart so we can go together on calls.” 

She wasn’t sure what to expect, but says citizens have been grateful to have someone reach out following a traumatic incident to point them toward resources and answer their questions. “If I don’t know the answer, I will find it for you!” she promises.

And, she says, officers quickly dispelled her early jitters over whether they would let her into their tight-knit world. 

“They welcomed me with open arms and continue to make me feel at home,” she says. “I keep telling them, ‘You guys have me until I retire.’”