Madison CARES teams prove beneficial in first year of service

A new approach to responding to mental health emergencies in the City of Madison is proving beneficial for both patients and first responders.
Updated: Aug. 1, 2022 at 6:00 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - A new approach to responding to mental health emergencies in the City of Madison is proving beneficial for both patients and first responders.

The Community Alternative Response Emergency Services or CARES program is nearing one year in service and just recently was expanded to cover more hours and areas in Madison.

CARES teams are comprised of a community paramedic and a mental health crisis worker. These teams handle non-violent behavioral health calls made to 911, rather than sending police officers.

They drive SUV’s and approach the scene without lights or sirens on, taking a non-aggressive approach to de-escalate the situation and get the patient help.

“Every crisis is different and unique. There’s no cookie cutter way to treat somebody,” said Eric Kinderman, a Community Mental Health Crisis Co-Responder & Mental Health Technician with Journey Mental Health and the CARES program.

Kinderman has been in the mental health field for almost 17 years and joined the CARES team in April. He said, so far, the experience has been eye-opening.

“I was kind of taken back at the amount of welfare checks that get called in daily and other mental health crisis type calls that normally would have police responding or firefighters or other ambulances when it’s really not necessary,” said Kinderman.

He said this type of response to mental health calls is something he is glad is finally available in Madison.

“I’ve worked with individuals who I’ve lost to suicide because of not having that type of response there,” Kinderman said.

The teams stay for an average of 60 minutes on each call, to not only care for that person in the moment, but to facilitate long-term treatment options. Very few calls have required the assistance of police officers, but they can ask for back-up if they feel they or the public are in danger.

Kinderman said he always tries to “understand the whole situation and then really give them good recommendations that I know could help keep them alive or improve their situation.”

The program launched last September, with two CARES teams operating weekdays only, during limited hours. Since then, they’ve responded to more than 670 calls, averaging about 5 calls in an 8-hour period.

Community Paramedic Mark Norton has been on the CARES team from the start and said he has learned a lot over the last year.

“I think there’s a lot of things I’ve learned just around the importance of empathy, generating connections with your patient,” said Norton. “Also, being able to guide them to a better situation that they initially hadn’t considered, or they’d been hesitant to agree to.”

Early data shows the CARES team’s approach is working. In the first six months of operation, the CARES team successfully connected 40% of patients to services like case management, detox, or inpatient or outpatient treatment.

Still, Norton said their call load remains heavy. “There are definitely calls waiting out there every day that we aren’t able to go to because we’re tied up in another call.”

That’s why the City of Madison has expanded the program, using $250,000 to add four more employees to the team and increase hours of operation during the weekdays. This will allow CARES to take more calls and better cover the city’s west and south sides.

Norton and Kinderman both agree that this service is saving lives.

“When things are so bad that someone is wanting to call 911, you know someone is having an emergency, being able to have those sorts of options, it’s always better to have more if we can provide that,” said Norton.

Ché Stedman is the Assistant Chief of Medical Affairs Madison Fire Department and heads up CARES team operations.

He said CARES team has been well received in this first year, as the service is a win-win for both patients and all Madison first responders.

“It’s a good alternative for law enforcement to not have to walk into somebody’s home who is experiencing a mental health or behavioral health emergency and not see a person with a gun on their hip and a badge on their chest. That alone, no matter how good a police officer is at their job, can cause the person to maybe escalate their situation a little bit,” explained Stedman.

Stedman said a short-term goal is to expand into weekend hours, with a long-term goal of operating 24/7. He explained that a full-time operation would likely require 12 paramedics and 12 crisis workers to be on the CARES staff, compared to the four of each currently working on the team Monday-Friday.

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