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Our View: Mobile unit has, indeed, been ‘good stuff’ for those in crisis, law enforcement

It took Carroll County a long time to create a mobile crisis unit — 21 other Maryland counties already had such units up and running — but based on law enforcement reaction and data assembled through its roughly year-and-a-half in existence, better late than never.

Therapists and peers in recovery for mental health or substance use issues make up the unit, which is in place to respond to people in crisis and help direct them to resources. What exactly is a crisis? It is left intentionally vague, Mike Clancy, a therapist with Affiliated Sante which operates the mobile crisis team on behalf of the Carroll County Health Department, told us.

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“We don’t really define crisis for people, we let them define it for themselves,” Clancy said. “Where most people think a crisis is someone having suicidal ideation, we can just have somebody who is upset with their parent or their significant other; that’s a crisis.”

The purpose is to get professionals on the scene to work with those in crisis and get them to the best possible destination rather than a local emergency room or incarcerated.

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“We were seeing a lot of people going into emergency departments and utilizing the emergency department unnecessarily to get their behavioral health needs met. That is not a responsible way of using Medicaid dollars," Veronica Dietz, director of crisis services for the Health Department, told us. It’s also not the best outcome for the person seeking help, she said — nor is jail for someone who is likely better served with treatment for an addiction or mental health issue.

The numbers are striking. From July 1 through Sept. 30, the first three months of fiscal year 2020, the mobile crisis team diverted 29 people from the emergency room to other, less intensive resources, and helped six people who might otherwise have wound up in jail. The team responded to a total of 140 new cases during that time, according to statistics collected by Affiliated Sante, after responding to 507 cases in its first year, FY19 (July 2018 through June 2019).

Whether a family dispute, someone upset that they lost a job, or something more physical such as an overdose or a reaction to or lack of medication, Clancy said the process is the same: to intervene in the crisis and try to link people to services — and to follow up. “Everyone that we see we try to do a 24-hour follow-up,” he said. “Our average length of working with someone is about nine days, minimum is about six and then maximum is about 26."

Law enforcement appears happy to have the help.

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“They bring a whole new level of expertise to the table,” Col. Lawrence Suther of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office told us. “I think it’s saved us in work time, it’s saved us in some trips to the [emergency room] and it’s probably saved us some arrests from people acting out from a mental health issue where they might end up in the jail. These folks are able to get them calm and on a treatment plan.”

The only downside, according to Suther? That there is a need for another mobile crisis unit. Clancy said there are days when they’ve had up to six back-to-back dispatches to all corners of the county.

Indeed, it would be beneficial to extend services into the early morning hours — currently, the unit is available from 9 a.m. until midnight each day — if possible with some shifts overlapping to have two units available at peak times. Another addition could be having medical doctors and/or psychiatrists as part of the team or on-call, able to provide or prescribe medication.

At any rate, the mobile crisis unit seems to be functioning as anticipated when it was belatedly created. When the Board of County Commissioners approved funding for it in 2017, Commissioner Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, rightly called the first line of intervention critically important, saying, “When you can get them before they start going down the wrong path, man, that’s good stuff.”

The mobile crisis team can be reached at 410-952-9552.

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