Mobile unit planned to assist mentally ill

Program would team health counselors with county police

April 07, 1999|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County health officials are developing a mobile crisis intervention unit that would pair mental health workers with police officers to help them handle potentially dangerous situations involving the mentally ill.

The program, modeled after one in operation for 12 years in Berkeley, Calif., is at the center of an Anne Arundel Mental Health Agency initiative to create a comprehensive array of crisis services for the mentally ill.

"They could provide assessment on the spot, some intervention relating to safety, calm down a situation, follow up and make sure things stay calmed down," said Francis A. Sullivan, executive director of the Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency.

"If you get somebody in crisis, taking him to jail may solve the problem for the people complaining, but it won't solve anything for the person who's in crisis," said Sgt. Andrew B. Rateaver of the Berkeley Police Department.

"We can call the team, and turn that person over to a mental health worker who can do crisis counseling on the scene, get that person into a homeless shelter and really give that person what they need," Rateaver said.

Sullivan said he hopes to have Anne Arundel's program running by June. Baltimore City and Montgomery County are the only jurisdictions in Maryland that have mobile crisis units, and Prince George's County is developing one, Sullivan said.

In addition to the mobile crisis unit, the agency is proposing a walk-in center open daily until at least 10 p.m., more residential and inpatient crisis beds, a behavioral assessment team to evaluate problems in a home setting, an information, referral and "talk" telephone line and training for police, fire and rescue personnel in crisis management.

Sullivan said the county received "verbal approval" for a $1.2 million grant from the state Mental Hygiene Administration to finance the crisis services project. The county's Mental Health Agency is seeking a provider or a group of providers to operate the crisis programs services, based on criteria outlined in a request for proposal. The deadline for submissions is April 30.

"Essentially what we're trying to do is change the way we offer mental health services by allowing for earlier intervention," Sullivan said.

Frequently, he said, people in a mental health crisis or their families seek help for the first time through the 911 system or a hospital emergency room.

Barbie Morgan, the 16-year-old Severna Park girl who leaped to her death from the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in January, might have been saved if services had been available to her earlier, he said.

"We need to be much more assertive in bringing people to treatment before they get into crisis," he said.

John R. Belcher, a professor of social work at University of Maryland School of Social Work, said Maryland lags behind other states in providing crisis services to the mentally ill.

But he praised Anne Arundel's efforts to address the problem.

"It's a step in the right direction and long overdue," he said. "But as long as state [psychiatric] hospitals continue to discharge people prematurely and Maryland does not have any outpatient commitment system, it won't solve the problem entirely."

In many states, courts can require a psychiatric patient who has been released from a hospital to take medication or attend therapy as a condition of staying in the community.

Sullivan maintains that needless hospitalizations could be avoided if appropriate services are available.

"You could manage a whole lot of behavior that otherwise could lead to a commitment of that person," he said.

One of the most visible components of the plan would be the partnership with county police.

Under the proposal, two counselors would be available to assist police officers on domestic or mental illness calls for two eight-hour shifts each day.

For example, if an officer receives a call of an individual drinking and threatening to hurt himself, he can call the mobile crisis unit for help.

The team could suggest taking the patient immediately for treatment, following up the next day or taking the person to spend the night at another location until he or she calms down.

"We want to give police officers the tools to back their decisions up," Sullivan said. "We also want to make sure that the police don't view anything with the mental health unit as an interference with their mission of keeping people safe."

Rateaver said such issues have not been a problem in Berkeley.

"We clearly have come to know what is out of our area and when to call in a mobile crisis worker," he said. "A lot of times they can put us back on the streets to deal with crime like we're supposed to do."

Pub Date: 4/07/99

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