Meet Kate O’Donnell, Weston Police Department’s Mental Health Rockstar

Kate O’Donnell. Courtesy photo

Yesterday, the Owl, who is ostensibly on vacation but has an untreatable addiction to writing, got the opportunity to speak with Kate O’Donnell, Weston’s (and Wellesley’s) Law Enforcement Community Mental Health Program Rockstar. Yes, that is her title and I did not just make it up. Maybe the title. Maybe not. Oh all right, she’s a Clinician AND a Rockstar.

Kate has been with Weston Police Department for just about two years–though many of us may not have met her. And you might not meet her until you or a family member or neighbor needs her. Because mental health issues are private information, please note that this post will be a little wishy-washy about what actually goes on in private homes. Just know that in my private home at this moment, there is absolutely ZERO mess caused by twin boys, a dog and a cat, and zero stress about that.

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[Owl] What is your role and daily work with Weston and Wellesley Police Departments? 

[Kate]: I’m a social worker and I work with the police officers to respond to mental health crises in the community. Calls can come into the dispatchers that are immediately identified as needing me in addition to the officer, and other calls come in that the officer responds, and then calls me in for support. Many calls are open to interpretation–you can occasionally find one that comes in as, for example, a lost dog call but turns out to be something else. I work with our residents in person but will enter a home only if an officer is there for safety.

I typically work from 10 am to 6 pm or 12-8 pm, but mental health calls can happen at all times, and post-8 pm or weekends can be a hot zone of stress and anxiety for many people. If I’m not available and an officer has been to a home that has a mental health crisis, then they leave a report for me. When I’m available, I will call the resident and assess their needs to see if I can help them find a service to assist them.

Do you ever get called directly by residents needing help?

If I have a relationship with a family – because they have a history of safety issues or whatever – that person might call directly. That’s really more of a follow-up though–all my original calls come through dispatchers and the officers. 

What are the challenges of your work?

My job is so interesting because it feels like every day– and every crisis– is different every time. It takes a while to get all of the nuances.  I rely a lot on relationship building with the officers — communication needs to be open, and the officers have an understanding of what I do. While I’ve been here almost two years, it’s only now that I feel like I’ve fully gotten the rhythm–but there are always elements of surprise and learning.

How did the Community Mental Health Program come about?

I have to give credit to the two Police Chiefs (Weston and Wellesley). This began as a pilot program that the two chiefs established in a partnership with Riverside Community Care. Last year, the program became independent of Riverside, so I could fully concentrate on the social work and mental issues in these two towns.  

How do you split your time?

I am contracted twenty hours per week in each place. I do spend every day in both departments and work two evenings until 8 pm, one in each town. There are days and weeks when one town needs more time than the other, but it always seems to equal out in the end, and the two police departments have a great and understanding relationship. 

Any differences between towns? Which is crazier? 

[laughs] I have been thinking about the differences in the towns for some time. They do seem to take turns on which one needs more help at various times. Weston has fewer people and more space while Wellesley has a bigger population concentrated more densely. Does that affect mental health differences? I haven’t worked that out, but I can say that Weston needs more intensive time. Weston also doesn’t have many social workers to whom I can place a call in town and send the file over, so to speak. Both police departments have truly wonderful officers–the communities are extremely lucky.

Weston has a smaller police department and I’ve had an easy time building relationships and trust and rapport. In Weston, it also helps that all the officers have crisis intervention training–an intensive week-long course that provides them with the best ways to act and react in mental health crises.

Do you feel like the number of mental health calls is going up or holding steady or declining? 

Summer can have fewer calls because people are away. But I think mental health calls have been pretty steady. Maybe at the beginning of the pandemic, there were not that many calls because most people didn’t want an in-person visit. Now I worry because in the post-Covid time, the need for mental health services is not being met in general–there are simply not enough clinicians to meet the needs. The great risk of this is that the frustration felt by people on waitlists for treatment might cause something to escalate that wouldn’t have if people had the counseling they needed.

Where there is the greatest need is for kids and teenagers. And the demand for mental health services is not being met–a recent Boston Globe article talks about kids waiting for beds in a mental health facility may wait days or weeks for an opening. It’s clear that people need support wherever they can find it–there are many more online support services now, and I expect that will continue. 

Have you heard about Active Minds, a club started at the high school, focused on peer-led suicide prevention? 

I hadn’t heard of it but it sounds great. There are so many support groups available now that I hope everyone finds the help they need–there are support groups for people supporting others, for those with elderly parents or challenged family members at home, and many others. 

What’s your favorite part of your job? 

I would say collaborating with the officers, especially as follow-up after a call. The feeling of closing the loop on a difficult call is the best and most meaningful part of the job. 

Last question. Have you ever pet K9 Knox?

Are you kidding me? He did almost jump in my car once though.

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On a personal note (and with full disclosure that she is a fan of the Weston police), the Owl is grateful that Kate has come to Weston. Given some of my own recent experiences with slightly umm, unbalanced comments on this and other pages, mental health seems to be more than a little fragile in general. The knowledge that Weston’s Finest all have training in crisis management and a sympathetic and wonderful social worker should make us all feel better. 

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