Featured photo: Winston-Salem’s mental health-response team met with city leaders and Rep. Kathy Manning at Fire Station 19, 4430 Glenn Hi Road on Wednesday afternoon (photo by Gale Melcher)

The city of Winston-Salem’s Behavioral Evaluation and Response Team, or BEAR, is a month away from celebrating one year of helping residents through crises, offering an alternative response to non-violent mental health, domestic disputes and substance abuse calls made to law enforcement and first responders. The BEAR Team responded to their first call on May 15, 2023, and have answered more than 2,000 since then. Director Kristin Ryan says that the crisis counselors respond to more than 200 calls per month at a rate of 8-10 each day. They’re available 24/7. Calls can take between 1-6 hours, and the team’s response time is around 11 minutes with a maximum response time of 30 minutes.

“We want to keep improving our service delivery as being that appropriate alternative to law enforcement for these calls, and we want to make sure that we’re staffed adequately, that we can respond properly and that the team has the support that they need,” Ryan said during Rep. Kathy Manning’s visit to Fire Station 19 on Wednesday. Manning advocated for and secured $700,000 for the team as part of the federal government’s first fiscal year 2024 appropriations bill.

This team is “exactly what we need to keep our community safer” and offers the opportunity to “add the right dose of humanity to caring for people in crisis,” Manning said, adding that it should be “replicated” across the country.

The team was founded in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, which pushed back against police brutality and resulted in a call for new models of law enforcement.

Counselors for the BEAR Team answer mental health-related calls without police or EMS. If needed, they can call for backup from the police. However, out of their 2,148 calls so far, they’ve had “no incidents” where they had to call police, Ryan said.

While the BEAR Team operates without police presence, other response teams around the state are still “heavily utilizing hours of time of law enforcement and EMS,” Ryan added.

Greensboro’s mental health-response team is following this route, using a co-response team where mental health professionals and police answer calls together.

A BEAR transport vehicle (photo by Gale Melcher)

How is BEAR funded?

The $700,000 in federal funds that Manning secured will add four additional crisis counselors to the team, bringing total staff to 11. Ryan said that they “really do need the relief of the four additional staff.” Manning noted that there will be one more round of funding for community projects during this term.

So far, BEAR has been largely financed through non-city funds. It started out as a pilot program, and their first year was funded with $700,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funding.

The city bought the team three cars in February 2023 and four more in October, totaling nearly  $300,000.

In October, the city applied for $532,123 in opioid settlement funding from Forsyth County

That’s “still pending,” Ryan told TCB on Wednesday, although she added that they “should know about that soon.”

In October, Assistant City Manager Patrice Toney told TCB that this funding could potentially add a “paramedic at some point.” 

According to the National Institute of Health, patients with a diagnosed mental-health condition are more likely to get opioid prescriptions despite their greater risk of addiction and overdose. If someone is simultaneously experiencing a mental health crisis and a drug-related crisis, the BEAR Team would have a “paramedic right there who can treat the patient,” Toney said.

However, on Wednesday Ryan said that they don’t plan on adding a paramedic to the team.

“The team is trained in mental-health counseling, we do not handle a lot of the medical calls,” she said. Instead, this funding will add four peer-support specialists to work alongside clinicians to increase follow-up responses and offer more support.

While the city has relied on grants to fund the team, BEAR’s future may eventually need city financing, Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe told TCB

“I imagine that we’ll continue to look for funding opportunities like this, but I think that at some point a decision will have to be made about continuing to provide permanent funding to continue the program at the level that we’re at now,” Rowe said.

The best way to reach the BEAR Team is by calling 911 and requesting the team, or by calling them directly at 336-705-3668.

Mayor Pro Tempore DD Adams and Rep. Kathy Manning (photo by Gale Melcher)

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