New ‘mobile crisis response team’ to play a key role in Douglas County’s response to behavioral health crises

photo by: Criminal Justice Coordinating Council screenshot

Members of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council discuss Douglas County's new "mobile crisis response team" during their Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022 meeting.

If you’re having a behavioral health crisis in Douglas County and you call for help, you might be assisted not by police or emergency medical personnel, but by a new mobile team that’s specially trained to de-escalate mental health emergencies.

Community leaders involved with Douglas County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council recently heard more about the new “mobile crisis response team,” which began operating in its full form last Sunday, and they expect it to become a cornerstone in the county’s behavioral health landscape alongside the nationwide “988” suicide and crisis lifeline that went live in July.

The mobile team is being led by Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, and it consists of four pairs of one therapist and one case manager, plus a peer support specialist. The therapist and case manager teams are available seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. each day.

Edie Harrison, Bert Nash’s mobile access team program manager, told the Journal-World this past week that the team has responded to just one call since it became fully operational, so it’s hard to say what its capacity for crisis response will be in the long term. A smaller-scale version of the team started operating in June, she said, and it responded to 48 calls that were forwarded from community partners, law enforcement officers and internal Bert Nash teams.

But even that is a fraction of the number of mental health calls that Douglas County dispatchers receive. Monica Kurz, of Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ, told the CJCC on Tuesday that the county gets about 300 mental-health-related emergency calls per month that don’t have a criminal or medical component. Local law enforcement agencies now have a dedicated line to request services from the Suicide Prevention HQ, which also handles the majority of Kansas’ 988 calls. And Harrison and Kurz said that the ultimate goal will be to divert all of the purely mental-health-related calls in the county to the crisis line — and hopefully decrease the number of people in crisis who end up in jail, the emergency room or an extended hospital stay.

“We don’t just go out and help them identify what kind of resources might help them through this crisis; we stick with them,” Harrison said. “… The crisis could be anything. It’s trauma-informed; the person defines the crisis.”

• • •

Now that the mobile team is active, what happens when a Douglas County resident calls Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ in a behavioral health crisis? In the presentation to the CJCC, Kurz gave a rough outline of how it might play out.

When the caller connects to the crisis line, the first thing that will happen is they will speak with a counselor to try to de-escalate the situation and assess their safety, Kurz said.

Often, that’s the only step that’s needed. According to a chart shown during the presentation using numbers from a similar crisis intervention system in southern Arizona, 80% of calls to 988 thus far there were resolved over the phone without any need for crisis intervention in person.

But not all cases can be de-escalated over the phone. If a caller displays an imminent risk of suicide or harm to others, for example, the counselor speaking to them on the phone will dial 911 and get the police or emergency medical services involved.

If the situation isn’t quite that dire but still requires some more help, that’s where the mobile crisis team comes in. Kurz said if the caller is eligible to be visited by the mobile response team and consents to the visit, the team can be contacted to come to their location for support. Eligibility is determined through a “mobile response screen” completed by the counselor over the phone, but Kurz didn’t go into detail about what sorts of questions are asked.

But whether the caller consents to the service in the first place is especially important, Kurz said.

“I think that this is the really important thing to note here is that we are looking for consent from people first before we’re sending a mobile response team to their home,” Kurz said. “That’s important for the safety of our mobile response team, and it’s important for the safety and the accessibility and I think the continued acceptability of the crisis line and of the mobile response.”

The counselor will then remain on the line with the caller until the response team arrives.

Of the cases that need a mobile team to respond, Kurz said ideally about 70% should be resolved in the field, with the remaining 30% moving on to an acute crisis facility like the Treatment and Recovery Center of Douglas County and then local inpatient care if necessary.

What happens if Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ can’t pick up a call due to high volume? Kurz said that in that case, callers will be directed to the 988 national backup network.

Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ is based in Lawrence at 2110 Delaware St., and it fields calls to 988 from all four of Kansas’ area codes. The only calls in the state that Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ doesn’t handle, Kurz said, are those from people who are calling from Wichita and have a 316 area code or who are calling from Johnson County and have a 913 area code. Those calls go to Comcare in Sedgwick County and the Johnson County Mental Health Center, respectively.

There’s also another number that you can call to reach Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ — one that was operating even before 988. That number is 785-841-2345, and it’s called the Douglas County Crisis Line. The County Commission granted its approval in April for Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ to operate the Douglas County Crisis Line through the end of 2022, and Kurz said it’s still important to operate that number for folks like University of Kansas students who live in Lawrence but don’t have a Kansas area code. Kurz said that if those people dialed 988, they’d be connected to a national call center instead of the local crisis line.

photo by: Criminal Justice Coordinating Council screenshot

Monica Kurz with Kansas Suicide Prevention HQ explains how calls to 988 from any of Kansas’ four area codes are dispersed to local crisis lines.

• • •

A workflow for the full diversion of calls from law enforcement to the crisis line hasn’t quite materialized yet. A proposed version still needs to be approved by emergency services and law enforcement leadership and formalized under a memorandum of understanding. But there is already an easy way for law enforcement officers to request help from the 988 crisis line, allowing officers an easier way to connect people in crisis to the services they need.

Another next step is expanding the program to the University of Kansas Police Department, Kurz said.

In the future, Harrison told the CJCC, the work will also include identifying other community partners who may have a regular need to work with the mobile response team, as well as protocols for how they can request a response. There will also be a focus on working with law enforcement officers to enhance their utilization of the crisis line.

But if those things happen and the mobile response team is an overall success, Harrison told the Journal-World she sees Douglas County being emulated not just across the state but on an even broader scale.

“I think it’s going to be something that across the state — even the nation — people are going to be looking at to see the success of it and see how all the pieces are working so well together,” Harrison said.

People experiencing a crisis locally can call the Douglas County Crisis Line for help at 785-841-2345. Calling 988 will connect a caller with a local crisis line or a national center, depending on the area code, and chat-based support is also available by texting 988.


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