When mental health crises require more than a phone conversation, these mobile units come to help

Psychological health

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A grandmother seeks help from a mental health crisis line after being attacked by her grandson with intellectual disabilities and a history of mental illness.

The crisis cannot be resolved over the phone. A mobile crisis unit enters into force.

Crisis advisor Cedric McNair collects papers and searches for the address. His classmate, Teraline Turner, is reaching out to Grandma for more information. with two others Mental health professionalsThey rush into a white truck.

Their mission is to defuse a mental health crisis. They have no sirens or flashing lights. Unlike the police, they do not have handcuffs and guns.

“Come on, let’s go help some people,” McNair told the team, every time, as they walked out.

In July, a three-digit national mental health hotline was launched to make it easier to get help in a mental health crisis. Eventually, it will replace a hard-to-remember 10-digit number known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Line 988 has already seen an increase in use – including in Philadelphia – and most calls are resolved by phone. But when a call needs a personal response, a mobile crisis unit often responds.

Mental health advocates say the success of the push to make 988 a crisis solution with a single call depends on the ability to dispatch mental health and behavior providers. The alternative is to rely on the police, which some fear will lead to escalation. About a quarter of people killed by police bullets in recent years had a mental health crisis.

In response to Grandma’s call one recent summer’s day, the team in the white van turns off the radio on their quiet ride to a home in West Philadelphia. Turner makes her talk on the phone and knows she’s not infected, but appears to be overwhelmed. Her grandson had never attacked her before.

The team does not wish to draw attention to the family’s mental health problems. The truck is unmarked, but they are still parked a block or two away. Team members don’t wear uniforms, only name cards. They carry whiteboards.

Inside the house, McNair and Turner first made sure that the grandmother did not require medical attention. The grandson was in another room talking about killing himself or someone else.

The team looks for evidence of an imminent danger such as possession of a weapon or a specific plan of action. They rate the threat as low. When they offer to take him to see a psychiatrist at the hospital, he agrees.

“He realized he needed help,” McNair said. “That was the most important thing.”

The grandson gets out of the house, walks up the stairs and grabs his grandfather’s arm. Both are smiling. There is no need for a police response. Grandpa thanks the team as his grandson puts on a mask and gets into the truck.

The team was dispatched from The Consortium, a behavioral health nonprofit, and one of four working with the city to answer calls via 988, or Philadelphia’s (215) 685-6440 crisis lines.

Those who work at The Consortium have painful memories What can go wrong when the police are not trained Psychological health Professionals, they are the only option in such crises.

In October 2020, two Philadelphia police officers shot and killed 27-year-old Walter Wallace Jr. mental health crisis. In body camera footage from the accident, Wallace appears in a fog as he walks with a knife.

He was well known to the consortium, as he lived a few blocks away. He was treated there only a few days ago.

John White, CEO of the consortium, said during a round table discussion in July with Federal officials to launch 988.

City officials say things are different after about two years, in part because they have beefed up mobile response units. There are now four multi-module providers, each focused on learning about specific neighborhoods in the city.

“Teams are learning about communities,” said Jill Bowen, commissioner for the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services.

The carrying capacity is still not as strong as the city, or some activists want it to be. But it is stronger than it was before the pandemic, when one unit was working 24/7 in the city.

Responding in the community can lead to an immediate sense of familiarity, a feeling that in itself can help defuse a tense situation. At least I did that summer day.

On the way to the hospital, one of the counsellors, Adrian Way. Parks, a trained psychologist, points to the window and says, “Do you see this school here? I went to this school.” Half a block later, she pointed to the window on the other side of the car, “And this is my church.”

The patient in the back seat starts laughing as the team members tease each other about who went to the best school – and one admits that he grew up all the way in North Philadelphia. He asks for some music, and the team sticks to it, even though they usually drive with the radio off.

The film “Fire and Desire” directed by Rick James and Tina Marie appears on the radio. The young man asks his advisors about who sings the song. The truck fills with laughter again as McNair stands in front of the entrance to Penn Medicine on Cedar Avenue.

Not every call ends with laughter. Crisis workers often face difficult dilemmas such as when to call the police and forcing someone to go for treatment. It’s a personal job for many. They got into crisis response because they themselves or someone I love suffered from mental illness or addiction.

It’s giving back, Turner said. crisis The intervention consultant who was part of the team involved in answering the grandmother’s call.

Back in the car, on the way back to The Consortium, she turns to her colleague, McNear, for a debrief.

“He loves his grandmother and grandfather,” McNair says. “He wanted to help.”



2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC.

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