Authorities said mental health teams that can respond to emergencies related to mental health and substance use in place of the police are available to all county residents.
Each year, county officers and agents respond to tens of thousands of calls related to mental health problems. Many of these calls are properly categorized as emergencies and require a quick response, but county leaders and law enforcement agree that these situations do not always benefit from the presence of officers.
Advocates of police reform, both locally and nationally, have long lobbied for some form of alternative, citing incidents in which police injured or killed people in a mental crisis.
In January, county officials launched “Mobile Crisis Response Teams,” or MCRT, to serve this type of alternative.
Teams are made up of mental health professionals, case managers, and peer support specialists who assess behavioral health and connect people to the appropriate level of care.
County officials say these professionals are uniquely positioned to offer a person-centered approach to nonviolent behavioral health situations that are often addressed more effectively by trained clinicians than officers.
During an update Tuesday at a Board of Supervisors meeting, officials said the program will be officially available to all residents after it grows into the northern interior of the county, which includes Escondido, San Marcos, Poway and part north of San Diego.
“This is a work in progress,” said Luke Bergman, county director of mental health services.
“Given the number of people still confronting law enforcement during a crisis, and given the numbers of people incarcerated in our county who have a mental illness or substance abuse condition, we know that the benefit of this service is enormous, and we expect it to continue to grow.”
As of November 29, mobile crisis response teams have responded to 268 calls. Nearly a third of the people the teams interacted with were transferred to crisis stabilization units, and about 45 percent were connected to community services.
About one in four have left the place where the call was made or services have been refused. In these types of situations, clinicians continue to provide resources for the individual or their family members should they be receptive in the future.
Nearly three-quarters of people assisted by teams were homeless.
Currently, individuals can contact mobile crisis response teams through the county’s Crisis and Access line at (888) 724-7240. Law enforcement agencies can also contact teams in the event officers arrive in a mental health emergency where they are not needed.
Residents of Chula Vista and National City can also contact MCRTs by calling 911, and service officials are working to implement throughout the county.
Although mobile crisis response teams are a welcome alternative for many, the police will still be responsible for responding to mental health calls when a person poses a risk to themselves or others. In these cases, agents or a psychological crisis response team, which brings together a mental health physician with an official or agent, will be dispatched to respond.
County officials said they worked closely with law enforcement to create specific criteria that dispatchers will use to determine whether a person should be referred to the MCRT or the police. For example, crisis response units will not be called in in situations where a person is armed, if a crime has been committed, or if someone threatens to harm themselves or others.
“Mobile crisis response teams are part of our ongoing implementation of mental health improvement and addiction treatment services to help put San Diegan on the path to recovery,” Superintendent Nathan Fletcher said in a statement.
“In a short period of time, MCRTs have proven successful, but as the program continues to roll out, we will be making adjustments and efficiencies to ensure we are making continued progress in helping our residents.”
During Tuesday’s update, Bergman explained that staffing has been a challenge as the mobile crisis response team program has grown.
He said the Behavioral Health Commission has been looking closely at the issue, and plans to present a series of recommendations aimed at improving mental health staffing to the Board of Supervisors in the spring.
The Mobile Crisis Response Team program is expected to cost approximately $10 million. The county also plans to invest $600,000 in a public information campaign about when and how to call in the crisis response team.
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