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Opinion: Dialing 911 for a mental health emergency will soon dispatch clinicians, not police

San Diego County Mobile Crisis Response Teams will include a clinician, a case manager and a peer support specialist.


Not all emergencies are alike.

Police officers respond to crimes. Firefighters respond to fires. Paramedics respond to physical medical emergencies. But if you or a loved one were having a mental health emergency, dialing 911 would dispatch law enforcement, not trained mental health clinicians.

This is going to change in the city of San Diego and across San Diego County.

Starting this month, county-funded Mobile Crisis Response Teams composed of a mental health clinician, a case manager and a trained peer support specialist will be activated. Members of these teams are trained crisis interventionists. They arrive on-site, evaluate the condition of those in crisis, and link them to the best place to get the trauma-informed behavioral health and supportive services they need.

Integrating mental health clinicians into our emergency response system is a heavy lift, but its the right thing to do. With this partnership between the county and the cities of San Diego, National City and Chula Vista, along with 15 other cities in the region, Mobile Crisis Response Teams will soon be our reality.

Every city leader and public safety agency working with us recognizes that we need a better way for families of mentally ill and injured people and the severely mentally ill and injured living on our streets to call for help when crises occur. Dispatching first responders to nonviolent mental health emergencies is a drain on public safety resources. One study found that10 percentof law enforcement agencies total budgets was spent responding to and transporting persons with mental illness in 2017.

The mere presence of a police officer can quickly escalate the situation with people who have had negative interactions with police in the past. Providing a non-law enforcement response to mental health crises 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, will help de-escalate crises, connect individuals to care and ensure law enforcement officers are available to address higher-threat public safety calls.

The pilot launched in January in a few targeted San Diego County cities has resulted in 71 clients being connected to appropriate services and only two people refusing help.

Creating a comprehensive mental health response system also requires changing where members of the public call for help. Right now in Sacramento, Assembly Bill 988 has been introduced in the Legislature to establish 988 as a suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline statewide. This bill follows a national model of establishing a dedicated three-digit 988 mental health crisis line that was approved by Congress with bipartisan support.

We support the concept of Assembly Bill 988 and are taking action now to incorporate Mobile Crisis Response Teams into the continuum of services that are offered to people that reach out for help.

About one-thirdof people experiencing homelessness also suffer from serious mental illness and injury, and people with untreated mental health disorders are likely to be or become homeless. Mobile Crisis Response Teams will be able to help some of the unsheltered people living in tents, on our sidewalks or in our canyons get connected to services to meet their needs.

Another benefit of separating law enforcement from mental health response is it helps address inequalities that disproportionately affect people of color and the LGBTQ+ community. Appropriate mental health response is also critical for San Diegos youth. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, as many as65 percentof youth arrested each year have a mental health disorder.

Contrary to public opinion, the majority of people with mental illness or injury are not violent. According to the National Institute on Mental Illness,20 percentof United States adults live with mental illness. Only a fraction of people who suffer from mental illness exhibit violent behavior as part of their psychosis. In fact, people with serious mental illness are actually at higher risk of being victims than perpetrators. For those instances when a situation involving a mentally injured person is violent, we will dispatch law enforcement, but well ensure they are partnered with mental health clinicians, through our Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams. Working together, they can de-escalate the situation and get the person the help they require.

We are building a better way to address mental health emergencies here in San Diego County. Mobile Crisis Response Teams give us an opportunity to lead the pack on a challenge that is not limited to our states borders. The comprehensive mental health response system we are building will put an end to the revolving door system and instead save lives.