El Paso County Sheriff's Office BHCON team 2

El Paso County sheriff’s Deputy John Hammond and UCHealth clinician Robin Schawe were the Behavioral Health Connect (BHCON) team, responding to the county’s calls related to mental health in 2018 related calls for service in an effort to divert residents in crisis from jail to appropriate support services. (Kaitlin Durbin, Gazette)

Sierra Winter’s heroin addiction took hold soon after her 16th birthday.

Grounded by her parents and deprived of her car keys, she endured the worst of withdrawal symptoms, sweating through hot flashes. Without drugs to numb the trauma of her past, she grew more violent than ever before.

Desperate for help, her mother called AspenPointe in January. An El Paso County sheriff’s deputy and mental health clinician were summoned to the family’s Manitou Springs home.

As Winter talked with deputy John Hammond and UCHealth clinician Robin Schawe, her plans to run away to kill herself or get drugs began to fade.

“They just were so not judgmental. I felt like I could tell them things I couldn’t tell my parents,” she said.

The next day, they took her to a local addiction treatment center where her road to sobriety began.

Winter and her family shared a table with Hammond and Schawe at the annual State of the Region address Thursday at The Antler’s hotel, where government officials and community leaders celebrated the county’s successes in the past year.

County Commissioner President Mark Waller, who delivered the address, cited the Sheriff’s Office’s two-person Behavioral Health Connect Unit as a prime example. The team responds to calls involving mental illness so they can get help instead of going to jail.

As Waller touted the county’s recent accomplishments, from urban renewal efforts to highway projects, mental health was a recurring theme.

“We’ve done big things to promote the economy, to enhance transportation and to tackle the serous mental health issues plaguing our region and nation,” Waller said.

He praised El Paso County Public Health and the coroner, Dr. Leon Kelly, for trying to prevent youth suicides with an outreach program that encourages “difficult conversations” with kids about bullying, anxiety, depression, violence and other issues.

He commended the county’s efforts to provide support and services for veterans struggling with lasting mental and physical trauma.

He applauded Sheriff Bill Elder for seeking solutions to address the “mental illness epidemic that fuels our inmate population, causing our jail to burst at the seams.”

In Colorado Springs and elsewhere in the state, mental health system shortfalls have led to a crisis.

Hospital emergency rooms have become the primary first stop for mental illness as communities grapple with a shortage of providers, psychiatric beds and treatment options. Many people simply can’t afford proper care for their mental illness amid rising health care costs. And those who fall through the wide cracks of the broken system often end up in jails and prisons, where their conditions worsen.

Elder is working to establish a behavioral health program for the jail after a consultant found that the facility has “no real mental health treatment programming,” aside from a practice of monitoring inmates who are at risk of suicide.

While the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t know how many people in its custody suffer from mental illness, data show that nearly 6,300 of the roughly 22,500 people booked into the jail in 2018 were flagged for suicide risk or mental health problems.

The Behavioral Health Connect Unit, launched in 2018, responded to 573 calls and provided services to 450 people during its first year, data from the agency shows.

Sierra Winter’s mother, Michele Winter, said the team saved her daughter’s life.

“This girl is here standing next to me — at 17 years, 7 months and one week old today — because of these two angels who came to our house when we called because we were in need,” Michele Winter said of Hammond and Schawe.

But Hammond attributed Sierra Winter’s resurgence to her drive and will.

He’s since been promoted to sergeant and no longer works on the team with Schawe.

“Our motto when were on the road together was, if we can only plant the seed of hope, that’s our goal,” he said.

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