Mobile crisis response calls for mental health increasing in Steamboat
Now in its second year, the mobile crisis response partnership between Steamboat Springs Police Department and local provider Mind Springs Health has proven increasingly beneficial and well utilized, both organizations say.
The program included 86 crisis responses throughout 2021, where police officers called for a mental health responder from Mind Springs when the situation warranted. Through the end of July this year, the program has been utilized 62 times, Steamboat Springs Police Chief Sherry Burlingame said.
“So many calls that we do go on to have some sort of mental health nexus,” Burlingame said. “We deal with an inordinate amount of people who are in some sort of mental health crisis. (Mind Springs) could triple or quadruple their staff, in my opinion, and we would be able utilize them.”
Mind Springs responded to help police an average of seven times per month in 2021 and nine times per month so far in 2022.
“It’s likely that the PD has just gotten more familiar with the program and have learned more about when it’s appropriate to call us, so it makes sense to me that calls would increase,” said Gina Toothaker, Mind Springs local program director.
“We have a great relationship with Mind Springs. When they come out and respond with us, they do an incredible job,” Burlingame said. “But at the end of the day, we need more clinicians, we need more resources.”
Toothaker agreed that often times community members involved with law enforcement have some underlying mental health or substance use issues.
“I’m happy that they (police officers) are using the program more. Our crisis clinicians really like these calls; they really like going with law enforcement,” Toothaker said. “They just feel like it’s a better way to respond to the community. The people get help faster, and we do avoid those situations that we used to have a long time ago when the police brings the person to the PD or emergency room.”
Advice from Mind Springs Health Program Director Gina Toothaker:
First, try to establish if the person is in danger of hurting themselves or hurting someone else. Agitated, angry or restless behavior or behavior that does not seem to fit the situation can be an indication of emotional distress.
Second, while safety for yourself as well as the person is the priority, do not assume that everyone with a mental illness or emotional distress is dangerous or potentially violent. In fact, that is rarely the case. But be ready to call 911 if the situation escalates or if the person is threatening.
Third, stay calm and use non-threatening body language. Don’t get too close or touch them. Speak softly. You can be firm, but don’t be confrontational.
Fourth, invite them to sit down in a quiet place away from other people. Offer a glass of water, or ask them how you can help. Find out if you can call someone for them.
Fifth, listen. Sometimes people just need to know someone cares. Offer to help them call a crisis mental health professional if you are still concerned and unable to stay with them or if they voice a desire to talk to someone about their mental or emotional health.
In the past, people in crisis who were not assisted early by a mental health provider “were already agitated or upset because of law enforcement,” Toothaker said, noting the current mobile response is “helping people regain stability more quickly.”
Mind Springs currently has two Master Level Clinicians assigned to mobile crisis response, with a single crisis responder working half a month at a time. The crisis responders respond to other mobile calls too across Routt County at schools, the jail, doctor’s offices, homes and for the new 988 statewide crisis hotline.
Toothaker said hiring new crisis staff is limited by both the cost of living in the Yampa Valley as well as the national shortage of mental health care workers. Yet, with the success of the program, Toothaker hopes to be able to secure funding and find staff to create a true co-responder program by fall 2023.
“Sherry and I would both like to see this program expand to a true ‘co-responder’ model, with Mind Springs clinicians based at the PD,” Toothaker said. “Then the mental health provider can be right there and evaluate and de-escalate the situation from the beginning.”
Expanding to a true co-responder model could also include providing paired service through the Routt County Sheriff’s Office in the future, Toothaker said. Currently, Mind Springs does not have a contractual agreement with the sheriff’s office but does respond to various calls, especially in Hayden or South Routt County, when requested by the state crisis line.
Both Burlingame and Toothaker said community members or business owners can call 911 when they believe a person is in danger of hurting themselves or others.
Burlingame’s advice before responders arrive is to: “Be cautious with how you communicate with them. Ask them questions, but don’t try to make them angry. Give them options and choices they can make, such as ‘you can stay here or leave.’ Allow them to have a voice.”
However, if the person with possible mental health issues is not displaying behaviors that might hurt someone, calling 911 is not recommended.
The police chief said most of the department’s existing officers have completed a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training, and newer officers will be sent to the training in spring 2023.
Toothaker said one way for community members to help with mental health in the valley and to learn when it is necessary to call 911 for mental health situations is to attend or schedule a half-day Mental Health First Aid Class. She said hundreds of people have taken the training at the hospital, college, schools and some service agencies. Interested organizations or individuals can call Mind Springs to learn how to schedule or attend a class.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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