Perspective: Mental Health Crisis Mobilization Teams

Written by Sam Skinner

Last time I spoke about the Early Assessment and Support Alliance (EASA), Oregon’s first episode psychosis program for youth and young adults. This week I’d love to talk about another community resource that is crucial for people experiencing mental health crisis: mental health crisis mobilization teams. These are usually professionals who are crisis trained and will respond to non-violent calls to provide assistance to the person in mental health crisis.

Yet, the most common form of this type of service falls under the police department. Oftentimes police staff who are crisis trained will still wear the police tactical gear and carry a gun. Rarely is a firearm needed in a mental health crisis, and oftentimes the image of someone who still appears to be a police officer – via tactical uniform and gun – is the opposite of what a person in a mental health crisis needs. Essentially, this is not trauma-informed and thus will counterintuitively escalate the crisis situation. This is especially pertinent to what we are experiencing and witnessing across the U.S. What comes to mind as a positive example of trauma-informed crisis service is Eugene-Springfield, Oregon’s Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS).

If you aren’t already aware, this community-based non-profit program has gotten a lot of talk in the past few years, and for good reason. CAHOOTS mobile crisis response consists of one medic and one social worker, who do not wear intimidating tactical uniforms or carry weaponry. They operate under their parent organization, White Bird Clinic. They communicate effectively with the police to respond to crisis calls and provide de-escalation in lieu of police presence. This type of community-based practice is an excellent example of how we can shift the paradigm from punishment to treatment – from guilty until proven innocent, to innocent until proven guilty – and ultimately aid those in need.

Many Oregonian advocates, system builders, and people who have received CAHOOTS services have vouched for them, thus pushing for this effective model to extend to policy. An interview was recently captured by the Oregon Healthy Transitions podcast Episode 1, highlighting youth testimony to CAHOOTS. Members of EASA’s Young Adult Leadership Council and the greater Oregon Healthy Transitions Youth Summit were able to give lived experience insight for policy change at the Oregon Governor’s Behavioral Health Council’s (GBHAC) meetings this last fall. Though these recommendations did not pass at the state level, one tentative win is Senate Bill 4441, pushing for this trauma-informed mobile crisis response model to be covered by Medicaid nation-wide. Not only would this service help so many people in crisis, but it would ultimately cut down on police brutality rates and deaths caused by professionals lacking mental health crisis intervention skills. 

As we move into 2021, there is a call to action for mental health and criminal justice reform – among many other systems. It is imperative that youth voice is heard, and that qualitative data is not undervalued. The nature of this work is very complex, emotional, and must include genuine empathy by listening to those that have experienced trauma and injustice. Here’s hoping for a more trauma-informed future. 🙂

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