New mental health mobile crisis team aims to improve emergency responses

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Sending police or firefighters to a mental health crisis may not be the most effective response, and a new initiative aims to improve outcomes of these emergency calls in Springfield.

The new mobile crisis team, which is spearheaded by Mental Health Services for Clark and Madison Counties, seeks to more effectively respond to emergency calls in which someone is experiencing a mental health crisis.

The new team works with the Springfield Fire Rescue Division and Springfield Police Division on Monday through Friday during regular business hours, but is hoping to expand, said Rachel Huffman, director of treatment and prevention with the Mental Health and Recovery Board for Clark, Greene and Madison Counties (MHRB).

MHRB chief executive officer Greta Mayer said having a dedicated mental health response can better help a person in crisis.

“I think it’s a great way to better match the resource to the presenting need, and it’s less of a stumble factor for the individual crisis in their family,” Mayer said. “When you have multiple crises in the community at the same time, it really stretches the workforce then, and there may be a better resource like a mental health response to better match what those needs are.”

Springfield Police Chief Allison Elliot said it can be intimidating for a person experiencing a mental health crisis to be met with police. Although Mental Health Services and MHRB have helped train officers on responding to these kinds of situations, Elliot said a collaborative response is more effective.

“That’s still not our wheelhouse; we’re not subject matter experts, so having the subject matter expert come with us and respond with the fire division is fantastic, and we’re very grateful for that partnership,” Elliot said.

Many people in the community who experience mental health crises have sought resources from Mental Health Services, so having a person who knows their history on the scene of an emergency call can help inform the response, Huffman said.

The initiative is a collaboration between Mental Health Services, MHRB, Springfield police, Springfield fire and other agencies.

Although the team has been in the works since the fall, it has been active for about six weeks, and its members have been training and shadowing first responders.

Currently, EMS Lt. Felix Stranahan and Katie Miller, a mental health crisis worker, are responding to a majority of the calls with a possible mental health component.

“There’s no real template for us to follow. A lot of different communities are trying something like this, but there’s not real cookie-cutter plan for it,” Stranahan said. “It really should be tailored to the particular community, what their resources are and their special needs.”

Clark County has one of the highest suicide rates in the state, with 20.1 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people from 2016 to 2020, compare to 13.8 per 100,000 statewide.

Miller said this shows that there is a significant need for a variety of mental health resources in the county.

“People know within the community where we are and to come to us, so now it’s nice to be able to come to them as well,” Miller said.

Stranahan said it’s important to “get in front” of mental illness by providing people to talk to and helping them obtain and maintain medication. This can stop a crisis from occurring.

Sara Hamilton, mental health crisis team lead, said after a call is completed, Mental Health Services follows up to make sure the person in crisis has access to appropriate intervention.

Hamilton said some people are calling 911 who aren’t experiencing an actual crisis, and when people call 988, they may not always get a local person helping them.

“In the future we hope to have an exclusive line to Mental Health Services to alleviate folks calling 911 that may not necessarily be an actual crisis, and that way they’re able to assist others in the community with medical needs,” Hamilton said.

Stranahan said there is a lot of work to be done, but he believes the initiative will have a significant impact on the community.

“I really do believe that in the end what this is going to mean is that folks that have a crisis will get the best service that the community has to offer, and by doing so, I like to think that we maybe will have less suicides ... or violence secondary to somebody having a mental health crisis,” Stranahan said. “Less hospitalizations potentially and increase the number of referral treatment when people need it.”

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