Mental Health in Transit: Denver RTD’s Clinicians

  • Author: Orrin Konheim
  • Date: September 30, 2021
People mill about an indoor bus terminal, a man holds a door open letting people through.
Denver's Union Station where RTD's Mental Health Clinicians assist riders.

This past February, Denver’s Regional Transportation District expanded its staff of on-call mental health clinicians from one to four. 

While this reflects a growing need for specialized health professionals to assist troubled passengers and transit operators during the unique stresses precipitated by the pandemic, it could also provide a pathway for how transit could better operate moving forward.

“The police are specifically trained to serve where it comes to more criminal matters, whereas they don’t get the necessary training that social workers get, so having [social workers] on scene allows the officers to protect the safety of individuals and we’re to protect the well-being that most individuals need, so there’s two different levels of safety,” explained RTD clinician Danielle Jones.

Denver’s RTD has historically relied on a combination of its own police officers and contracted security guards to deal with individuals but in 2018 a public relations snafu forced the transit system to reconsider its resource allocation. The incident in question involved the RTD’s suspension of a number of passengers for low-level offenses such as drinking or trespassing.   It was later discovered that a number of them were largely homeless or mentally ill.

A number of these passengers were clients of Mental Health Center of Denver which sparked collaboration between the two organizations in 2018 to streamline the delivery of much-needed services to those people. 

“Denver’s historically a very progressive city. I think leadership recognizes that we are changing and approaches to how we respond to behavioral distress needs to change from one-size-fits all law enforcement,” said Christopher Richardson of the MHCD.

Richardson is the current head of the program and the clinicians are MHCD employees who are contracted to the RTD. The partnership hopes to add a homeless outreach coordinator in the near future. 

“It’s not your typical counselor position,” said Jones. “You’re responding to counselor crises, you have to think on your feet. It’s kind of like going on a ride along with a cop and turning that ride along in a day of work.”

The Mile High City has taken additional steps to empower social workers and health professionals. In June of 2019, a pilot program called Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) was launched to divert low-level 9-1-1 calls to professionals. The program was funded through a grant for the Caring4Denver foundation whose mission statement is to “address Denver’s mental health and substance misuse needs by growing community-informed solutions, dismantling stigma, and turning the community’s desire to help into action.”

The MHCD has advised with other West Coast cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Portland about implementing similar mental health solutions of their own. No formal plans have been announced as if yet but Danielle Jones considers Denver to be a good breeding ground.

“We’re a medium-sized growing city, so it fits together in a way where we can test if the services are being used accurately and if people are buying into the program,” said Jones.

Nationwide Burdens on Transit Systems 

The Covid-19 Pandemic has only exacerbated mental health issues. For example, the New York MTA has faced increased calls for greater mental health oversight in the wake of headline-making crimes on the streets and in the subway system. 

An article in Spectrum News this past February revealed that Interim President of New York City Transit Sarah Feinberg has requested additional funding for mental health policing in the city numerous times over the past 18 months.

The Chaplaincy

Other transit systems like New York’s MTA and the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART have taken a different direction in addressing mental health: chaplaincy programs made up of on-call clerics from various religious backgrounds for employees and sometimes the public.

“Chaplains fill a gap that mental health services and other employee assistance programs may not always be to reach….The chaplains have become de facto therapists and counselors, shepherding employees through everything from traumatic experiences at work to family problems at home,” wrote Diana Kruzman in a Christian Science Monitor article.

In the Bay Area, the San Francisco Police Department Community Chaplaincy are trained to treat individuals in trauma and they even work with the Medical Examiners Office upon instances of death. Among the organizations that the San Francisco Police Department Chaplaincy refers individuals to are San Francisco Night Ministry, Bay Area, Legal Aid, Project Homeless Connect, and Domestic Violence Support. 

Similarly, a chaplain working with the New York MTA might counsel transit workers going through financial difficulties, attend wakes and funerals, visit people in the hospital, and show up at the scene of train collisions. The New York City Subway expanded its chaplaincy program to a transit-specific unit to cover all MTA employees in 1985. The program now has 68 on-call chaplains. 

Chaplains are taught to “be present without proselytizing,” according to Trace Haythorn who is the executive director of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. The chaplains are trained in other aspects of basic first responder protocol so they fuse their spiritual education with mental and physical well-being holistically.

A Common Goal

The hope is ultimately that mental health and police can work together towards a common goal. It’s the type of success that the Defund the Police called for but might never have been concretely imagined if not for initiatives like those being implemented in Denver.

“I personally feel there’s a lot of great things that came out of that defunding movement,” RTD Deputy Chief of Police Steve Martingano told CPR news this past March. “One of them was to take responsibilities away from police officers.”

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Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Kirby Wilhelm (wilhelm@ctaa.org).

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