A Mayor Went on a Police Ride-Along. What He Learned Changed How His City Looks at Mental Health

The city's wide-ranging focus on mental health included adding a counselor to all 22 schools to make it easier for students to seek help.

The city's wide-ranging focus on mental health included adding a counselor to all 22 schools to make it easier for students to seek help. Shutterstock

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Fishers, Indiana established a city-wide mental health task force to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness. Five years in, officials say the results are real.

During a police ridealong five years ago, Fishers, Indiana Mayor Scott Fadness had a question for the officer driving the car: What were the calls that bothered him the most?

“I was assuming he would say domestic violence, or armed robbery, or assault,” Fadness said. “And the officer actually said, ‘It’s the IDs.’ In my ignorance, I thought he meant checking drivers' licenses, and he explained that he meant immediate detentions, which is when someone is in such a bad mental health situation that they have to take them to a mental health facility because they’re going to harm themselves or someone else, or they pose a risk to do such.”

Fadness was surprised that this could happen often enough for a police officer in Fishers to take notice of it. The city, a suburban community of about 90,000 people on the northeast side of Indianapolis with a thriving tech industry, is often highlighted on national lists of “best places” to live. In a place with so many advantages, the mayor wondered, how common could that type of anguish really be?

“And he said, ‘It happens about once a shift,’” Fadness said. “I could not stop thinking about this. I could rattle off the top of my head how many homicides our community had had, but I couldn’t tell you how many people had taken their lives in the last year.”

The city did not formally track suicide numbers, but Fadness eventually learned that 12 people in Fishers had killed themselves that year. Roughly 35 people required medical attention after attempting to take their own lives, and an additional 150 people were taken to the hospital after being deemed a risk to themselves or to others. It seemed like a widespread problem, the mayor thought, but no one was addressing it at the city level. So Fadness decided to start.

“It was this awakening that in a community that’s viewed kind of as this utopian place where nothing bad ever happens, people were living in quiet despair,” he said. “We decided to bring a group of people in and have this kind of honest discussion about the problem.”

That discussion, involving public safety officials, school administrators and policy makers, led to the creation of a city-wide mental health task force dedicated to combating the stigma associated with mental illness in a comprehensive, substantive way. The group began by studying mental health (generally, and in Fishers) for a full year, then implementing a “roadmap” that focused on the most immediate issue at hand—making sure that people in the best position to assist those in crisis were properly equipped to do so.

“We asked ourselves, ‘If a community were to marshal its collective resources toward the issue of mental illness, what could we do and what should we do?’” Fadness said. “When someone is in a mental health crisis, we wanted to be the best-prepared community to deal with that individual and make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.”

That broad mandate translated to multiple initiatives, including mental health training for first responders and building a framework that allows the fire department to follow up with mental health patients after emergency calls to gauge their continuing well-being. The initiative also included a reform of mental health services in the school system, including the placement of a mental health professional in every one of the district’s 22 schools. Staffing each school costs roughly $400,000 per year, funded by a property tax increase approved by residents in 2016. 

“At the time, we had only three mental health professionals for 22,000 students,” Fadness said. “We made it a priority to put those professionals into our schools, into the buildings, where kids could get help.”

The counselors—social workers who are specially trained in mental health treatment—are able to treat students with a variety of concerns, ranging from stress and anxiety to severe depression and thoughts of self-harm. Last year, 843 students received services at school, according to data from the city. Forty-three percent of high-school students who sought services saw their grade-point averages improve, while 62 percent of students increased their math testing scores and 55 percent improved their scores on reading tests. 

Schools have also implemented preventive measures aimed at encouraging students to discuss their feelings, including a “Bring Change 2 Mind” club for high schoolers that aims to reduce stigma and teach teens about mental health. The club, now in its fourth year, has hosted a number of events, including stress-relief sessions for students during finals, a 5K run and a monthly meeting that regularly attracts up to 75 students, said Tommy Adams, a senior at Fishers High School who joined the club as a freshman.

“We’ve had a lot of members over the years, and I’ve noticed a difference in how we now perceive mental health at the school,” he said. “Before, I would always hear kids talking about how they were suffering from depression, they were overwhelmed with classes, and they felt like they had no outlet to express those feelings. I think the culture has improved.”

That cultural shift is a direct result of the ongoing long-term community awareness of mental health spurred by the task force, said Brooke Lawson, mental health and school counseling coordinator for the district and an advisor for the club.

“It’s created a community where it’s OK—and this sounds cliche, I know—to talk about your mental health. It’s OK to struggle,” she said. “We have worked really, really hard to start just having the conversation around mental health. It is pretty unique for a school district to just be talking about it regularly, but we do.”

Those changes are possible in any city, Fadness said. Some ideas, like installing counselors at every school, require an influx of funding, but others, like the club and first responder training, are inexpensive and easy to do.

“That’s one of the things we try to preach to other communities,” Fadness said. “Everyone thinks it’s such a daunting task and it’s going to cost a billion dollars to try to address it, but there are a lot of things you can do that don’t cost a lot of money that can help alleviate mental illness in your community.”

In Fishers, those involved say a key part of success has included a commitment to making the mental health initiative a long-term plan that can outlive changes in administration. Those discussions have become part of the fabric of the community there, Fadness said.

“I can rest well at night knowing that we have systems in place to help those people living in quiet despair,” he said. “I have to know, for my own sanity, that we’ve done everything we can to put systems in place to increase the probability of a good outcome...and I think we’ve made significant progress toward that end.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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