John Walsch, mental health navigator for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, recently had his position extended through the end of June 2022, after the Sheriff’s Office was awarded a year-long grant by the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs to fund the position. (Zach Jablonski/Peninsula Daily News)

John Walsch, mental health navigator for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, recently had his position extended through the end of June 2022, after the Sheriff’s Office was awarded a year-long grant by the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs to fund the position. (Zach Jablonski/Peninsula Daily News)

Navigating difficulties: Help offered to those in crisis

Mental health professional joins police on calls

PORT HADLOCK — The mental health navigator for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office has been funded until next summer.

The year-long grant from the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs (WASPC) extends the program funded by a six-month grant from the state association.

Navigator John Walsch started with the department on March 25 as a result of the initial grant from WASPC awarded for Jan. 1 to June 30. The most recent grant covers July 1 to June 30, 2022, for a total of $116,817, said Undersheriff Andy Pernsteiner.

“I think it’s been a good transition,” Walsch, the department’s first navigator, said in an interview Wednesday. “Everyone has been open minded and welcoming.”

Navigators are mental health professionals who work within law enforcement agencies to respond to mental health and/or substance abuse calls. They exist nationwide under different names.

Walsch was working as a designated crisis responder for Discovery Behavioral Health in Port Townsend for 4½ years, assessing patients for need of involuntary hospitalization for mental health or substance abuse concerns, before he was hired as the navigator, he said.

Before working for Discovery Behavioral Health, Walsch worked about four years as a clinical therapist starting in 1998, and then took a break from mental health for military duty before returning to working in mental health in 2016, he said.

When on a call, Walsch is accompanied by a sheriff’s deputy to ensure the situation is both safe for himself and for the person in need. He works with the person to assess what actions need to be taken, he said.

“I’m just another tool in the toolbox,” he said.

Walsch helps people connect with services ranging from mental health and substance abuse help to housing assistance, serving as a bridge between a person and such community partners as Olympic Community Action Programs (OlyCAP), Dove House Advocacy Services, Discovery Behavioral Health and others.

“Our goal, obviously, is to reduce those contacts, but unfortunately, we’re limited,” Walsch said. “We can’t make them get the help that they need.

“We encourage it as strongly as we can, but in the end, it’s their decision. It’s always my goal to develop a connection with people so they trust me, and when I provide them resources, they can trust those resources,” he continued.

“That’s not always the case. That’s just not reality. But, I’ll continue to try to do that regardless of what the response is. You never know when someone is going to benefit, so you just keep offering.”

Walsch responds to an average of about 63 calls a month, working four days a week, he said.

Sheriff Joe Nole told the county commissioners in February — when the department received the first grant — that the data of arrests and incident responses showed there were 14,750 incident responses with 125 related to alcohol, 109 related to drug and narcotics and 212 related to mental health in 2019.

The City of Port Townsend hired its own navigator, Jud Haynes, in 2019. Walsch worked with Haynes while he was still with Discovery Behavioral Health. Now, they assist each other as needed and fill in on calls if the other is busy, Walsch said.

Pernsteiner — who oversees the navigator program — is appreciative of the work that Walsch has been doing.

“The whole thing comes down to partnerships in the community,” Pernsteiner said. “All of us working together with Discovery Bay Behavioral Health and OlyCAP and John, so it’s kind of just links all of us together so we can communicate and talk through these issues.

“Once in a while we encounter something that is not quite elevated to the level where we can take someone into custody, because they may hurt themselves or others, but yet there’s other avenues in there that we can still get them help through the system.”

Pernsteiner hopes the grant will be extended again after June, but if not, he hopes the 15 months of data from Walsch’s work with the community will show the need for the role and will justify the county funding the position.

“Right now it’s looking like a really positive thing that I think the county will agree they should definitely fund,” Pernsteiner said.

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Jefferson County reporter Zach Jablonski can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5, or at [email protected]

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