The CARES program answered more than half of the city’s mental health calls in 2022. | Government

A little more than a year after Madison launched its Community Alternative Response to Emergency Services (or CARES) program to address behavioral health emergencies, report at the end of the year found it successfully responded to 935 calls in its first year, more than half of all mental health calls in the city.

“In the absence of CARES, many of these calls would have received a police response,” said the report compiled by Public Health Madison & Dane County. “Instead, CARES dispatch helps destigmatize behavioral health crises, diverts people from the criminal justice system as appropriate, and frees up police time and resources to focus on other calls for service.”

The program begins in September 2021. Response teams consist of one crisis worker from Journey Mental Health and one paramedic from the Madison Fire Department. The program started with one team responding only in the city center, eight hours a weekday, but the program slowly expanded.

Two CARES teams now respond across the city with extended hours from 8am to 8pm weekdays. One crew operates from Fire Station 3 on Williamson Street and the other from the former Madison Township Fire Station on Fish Hatchery Road. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway included more funding for the expansion in the 2023 budget, which will be implemented next year.

“Very few communities address their community’s mental health needs in this way. I am proud to see the positive impact CARES is having in the community and the benefits it has brought to the patient experience,” Rhodes-Conway said in a statement. “It’s also allowed the police department, which used to be our only option for responding to 911 mental health calls, to focus on violent crime.”

The year-end report shows that CARES patients often experience behavioral health crises such as suicidal thoughts, agitation and anxiety, and also found that the two most common challenges for patients are housing insecurity and substance use.

Other key findings from the report include:

  • CARES teams met most patient needs in person, with only 31% requiring transport for additional services
  • While on duty, CARES responded to 57% of the expected number of mental health calls for service in Madison
  • Only 3% of CARES calls resulted in a transfer to MPD officers, who by state law are the only people who can be involved in emergency apprehensions
  • CARES teams transported 18% of the 724 patients contacted to EDs, successfully achieving their goal of diverting patients from EDs whenever possible

The data in the report was collected by the Madison Fire Department and the Journey Mental Health Center, showing that the number of monthly CARES responses has steadily increased over time as the service area, hours of operation and staff capacity have grown.

Nearly a quarter, 24%, of CARES patients received a referral to at least one service such as crisis lines, case management, outpatient behavioral health, residential services, recovery/rehabilitation centers, and other services.

The city is hosting a virtual public meeting on Dec. 7 to gather feedback on the program and present the year-end report. It will include a listening session for residents to learn about the results of CARES and also help predict the future of the program through community feedback. Those wishing to attend can register via Zoom link of the city.

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