by CHRIS ROGERS
For generations, there have been primarily three types of emergency services in America: police, fire, and ambulance. For the last couple years, however, there has been another emergency service in Minnesota: mental health crisis response teams.
Hiawatha Valley Mental Health Center (HVMHC) Adult Community-based Services Director Christy Ferrington leads the crisis response team for Winona County. Her staff of mental health professionals are on-call 24/7 to respond to mental health crises, either by talking things over with someone over the phone or driving to meet them in person. The service is voluntary and discreet. There are no special markings on the team members’ vehicles. They wear business casual — no badges. They need patients’ permission to help.
Launched in late 2015 with state funding, Crisis Response for Southeast Minnesota takes calls from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes patients call in or concerned loved ones call for them. Sometimes police officers or dispatchers refer cases to crisis responders.
St. Charles Police Chief Ken Frank said that over his career, it seems like the number of mental health-related calls officers receive has increased. While checking on citizens’ welfare is one of a cop’s many jobs and several local law enforcement agencies have invested in mental health first aid and crisis intervention training for officers, several local police officials said that Crisis Response provides something they cannot.
“It’s helpful because sometimes we would walk away and we wouldn’t necessarily have the grounds or the basis for an emergency commitment, but we knew the people needed help and you walked away feeling empty,” Frank said. Winona County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff Mueller said that, before Crisis Response, there were essentially two options for deputies responding to a mental health crisis: do more or less nothing or take the person to the hospital. Frank explained that police need substantial grounds to involuntarily commit someone to medical care or it poses liabilities for the department. On the flip side, Mueller and Goodview Police Officer Travis Volkman said that officers sometimes worry if they do nothing, something bad will happen. Officers are focused on public safety, Volkman explained. “We’re looking for any reason to take them to the hospital,” he added. Mueller and Frank said that often people need something in between hospitalization and doing nothing. “This is another tool in our belt,” Frank said of Crisis Response.
“When we’re there, one of the things we hear most often is, ‘I don’t want to go to the hospital,’” HVMHC Adult Rehabilitative Mental Health Services (ARMHS) Practitioner Alexia Krause said.
“A lot of times we’re able to just talk them through their problems,” Krause said. Hospitalization is very disruptive, she and Ferrington explained. Hospital stays can last a long time, causing people to miss work, lose jobs, and get behind on bills, or even be evicted, Krause stated. “Then they’re released from the hospital and they have nowhere to be released to,” she said. “We want to keep people out of the hospital — keep them in their homes,” Ferrington added.
When Ferrington, Krause, and their colleagues respond to a call, the first thing they do is assess the person’s suicide risk. Then they try to figure out what is going on and how they can help. Oftentimes, that means asking clients what they need. “As an adult, none of us like having someone tell you what to do. ‘Well, I think you need this,’” Krause stated. People who experience a mental health crisis often feel like so much is out of their control, Krause continued. “The biggest thing we can do is just give people that sense of control,” she said. “We validate,” ARMHS Practitioner Stephanie Rybold said. “Everyone is telling them that they shouldn’t be feeling this way or acting this way. The feelings are real.”
“A lot of times, we’re able to just talk them through their problem,” Krause said. For people who need more, the mental health professionals also act as sort of emergency social workers, connecting clients to services and supports that could help them. “Getting into services is so foreign and intimidating to so many people,” Ferrington said. Sometimes the crisis responders encourage therapists or psychiatrists to bump someone up their waiting lists. The Crisis Response team said that there is not always enough resources to refer people to. “There’s not enough providers in our area,” Daytime Crisis Responder Heidi Meyer said. “Psychiatry is the biggest,” ARMHS Practitioner Clayton Griesbach added.
The Crisis Response team members stressed that “crisis” can mean any departure from the norm or from a person’s base line. A person does not need to be suicidal to call; in fact, early intervention is probably better, they said. “It can be any circumstance that is throwing someone out of sorts,” Krause explained.
Crisis Response for Southeast Minnesota is available by phone 24/7 at 1-844-CRISIS2 or 1-844-272-7472. More information is available at www.crisis2southeasternmn.com.