2021 | Government

Two new crisis response teams start in Montgomery County

Teams will help people with mental health problems

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Two new crisis and outreach response teams launched in Montgomery County on Monday morning to help residents facing mental health problems.

Rolando Santiago, the county’s chief of behavioral health and crisis services, said a $1.9 million Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant will fund six positions for two years. Each new response team will have three members.

The grant covers the cost of the six new positions. The county is using existing office space, Santiago said. 

Until now, the county has had one 24/7 response team based in Rockville.

The grant will expand that effort, adding one team in Silver Spring and one in Germantown, working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. from Monday to Friday. They will consist of  “peer support specialists” who will assist therapists in responding to people with mental health problems, Santiago said.

Santiago said in an interview that the two new satellite offices will help cover the northern, middle and lower parts of the county. They will also allow collaborations between the response teams and other local community partners.

“By being closer, they can be engaged with partners who are also reaching out to people with behavioral health needs,” Santiago said.

During a town hall meeting on Wednesday, Santiago and Dr. Raymond Crowel, director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, described the need for more behavioral health services countywide, and how county officials were addressing the demand.

They invited Tim Black, director of consulting at the White Bird Clinic in Eugene, Ore., to discuss the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) model, similar to the county’s efforts. 

CAHOOTS was founded in 1989 by White Bird Clinic, which provides mental health services to Lane County, Ore. Black said during Wednesday’s town hall meeting that of 105,000 calls to the Eugene Public Communications System in 2019, CAHOOTS responded to nearly 18,000.

In 2018, CAHOOTS saved about $14.8 million for people who would have needed to take an ambulance or go to the hospital, Black said.

In some cases, officials said, police still will need to respond to certain calls to assist, especially if the situation becomes dangerous for someone on the crisis response team. 

Beth Tabachnick, a therapist who works with the Montgomery County Police Department, said during Wednesday’s town hall meeting that police officers constantly get crisis intervention training.

Currently, more than 700 officers in the department are trained for 40 hours or more, based on four to six sessions per year, Tabachnick said. 

One viewer during the town hall meeting said more resources should be diverted from police to mobile crisis units and other behavioral health needs.

In response, Tabachnick said expecting police to not play any role in mental health events would be “disingenuous,” because each event is different and the circumstances can rapidly evolve after first responders arrive at the scene.

“There are many situations where individuals in the community call the police. … Someone could get into a car accident, and is under stress, or their symptoms may become more pronounced from that incident,” Tabachnick said.

Crowel said in an interview that he doesn’t think police can ever be fully excluded from mental health calls, given the thousands of calls police field annually. He added that officers are responsible for getting training in both lethal and non-lethal force, and know when to use both.

When asked about the shooting of Ryan LeRoux in Gaithersburg in July and if anything could have been handled differently, Crowel said it’s difficult to speculate about situations that evolve rapidly.

“If the crisis team had responded and seen a weapon, we would have stepped away from that, because it would have been putting ourselves in danger,” Crowel said. “And we would have changed how we respond.”

Police shot and killed LeRoux while he was parked at a McDonald’s drive-through, refusing to move. The police department has said LeRoux had a gun in the SUV. Officers fired shots into the SUV, killing him, after LeRoux suddenly rose up from a reclining position in the driver’s seat.

Santiago said in an interview there is still room to improve when it comes to a more rapid response for behavioral health events. More resources will help, along with redirecting resources to help those with mental health problems, he said. 

“We need more resources for these rapid response [and] behavioral health responses to crises,” Santiago said. “At the same time, that doesn’t mean that we should fold our arms. I think that we can do some things with existing resources, and do some things differently.”

Along with the new mobile crisis and outreach response teams, county officials are looking at options to create a restoration center.

Santiago described that as a place where people undergoing mental health problems can go for one to three days to get treatment. It has fewer resources than a hospital, but would have therapists or other mental health professionals and resources on-site versus what is available now. 

Discussions about where that would be and how it would be funded are still preliminary, Santiago and Crowel said.

Santiago said he’s seen successful centers across the country, including in San Antonio, that could be a model for Montgomery County.

“The vision is for a ‘16-bed and 16-recliner’ facility for stabilizing persons who experience a behavioral health crisis, and are diverted from emergency room placements and even from placements in jail,” Santiago wrote in an email. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com