County officials detailed the successes and challenges of a program that began in January intended to help people experiencing mental health or substance use crises by dispatching behavioral health experts to emergency calls instead of law enforcement.
San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher, District Attorney Summer Stephan, county behavioral health officials and representatives from Exodus Recovery spoke outside the County Administration Center Monday to share information about the Mobile Crisis Response Team program.
"Communities are demanding change because they understand law enforcement is not the appropriate response to deal with someone who is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis," Fletcher said. "This new team is an alternative to dispatching law enforcement when a person is having a psychiatric crisis."
According to the speakers, during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, local law enforcement agencies received more than 54,000 calls involving a psychiatric crisis.
The pilot program is giving an alternative to San Diegans in North County coastal communities who need assistance with behavioral health crises that do not require law enforcement intervention.
Using the county's Access and Crisis Line -- 888-724-7240 -- as the initial point of contact, a non-law enforcement MCRT is deployed to assess situations and offer help.
"Mental health, homelessness and drug use frequently intersect with the criminal justice system and too often the outcomes fall short of helping people who face these challenges," Stephan said. "That's why our Blueprint for Mental Health Reform recommended [these] Mobile Crisis Response Teams -- so that those suffering mental health crisis get a compassionate and effective response while at the same time keeping our region safe."
The North County MCRT pilot is responding to calls in the communities of Del Mar, Carlsbad, Vista, Encinitas, Solana Beach, Oceanside and Camp Pendleton. Teams provide crisis intervention, triage and assessment services in the field to connect people to additional care, when needed, to prevent acute psychiatric crises from escalating.
County Behavioral Health Services Assistant Director Cecily Thornton-Stearns emphasized that the MCRT pilot response is for psychiatric emergencies only when they're deemed not to involve threats of violence. She said the makeup of the teams, which consist of licensed mental health clinicians, case managers and peer support specialists, was extremely important.
"These clinical teams can triage and link the individual to appropriate services and can even provide transportation if needed," Thornton-Stearns said. "If a situation evolves and requires the presence of law enforcement, team members can call for assistance, and [Psychiatric Emergency Response Team] or other uniformed personnel will be dispatched."
The program operates during normal business hours through the access and crisis line, with on-call capacity for after hours, and may expand based on use. Services are provided through an HHSA contract with Exodus Recovery.
Additional teams will be ramping up throughout the county over the next year and may utilize 911 call dispatch.