Guest Opinion: Teaming up on mental health in Sonoma County

One of my first responsibilities when I became a county supervisor 4? years ago was to help settle a lawsuit for $1.2 million following the death of Jeremiah Chass, a teenage boy who during a psychotic mental break was shot and killed by sheriff's deputies.

I bring the case up now not to reopen old wounds but to share my motivation for initiating Sonoma County's Behavioral Health Mobile Support Team.

Jeremiah's death was tragic on several counts. His parents lost their beloved son before he got the mental health services that would likely have saved his life. The sheriff's deputies, who responded without the support of a psychiatric professional at the scene, were deeply affected by the regrettable outcome of that day.

My response to the shooting was to create a mobile crisis unit of therapists and substance abuse professionals who could assist law enforcement in response to 911 calls when the situation involves a mental health component. My goals were threefold: 1) to curtail tragic escalation of these events to avoid death or injury, 2) to intervene in the crisis to avoid jail and get the individual back into mental health treatment, and 3) to prevent placement in settings that are overly intensive, costly or restrictive.

Sonoma County's Mobile Support Team formally launched in September in cooperation with the Santa Rosa Police Department and the Sheriff's Office. The Mobile Support Team responds in the field to law enforcement requests during a behavioral health crisis. Once the scene is secured, staff provides interventions to individuals experiencing a crisis, including an assessment that assists in determining if the individual is placed on an involuntary hold.

The team is staffed by licensed mental health clinicians, certified substance abuse specialists, post-graduate registered interns, mental health consumers and family members. Staff receives specialized field safety training by law enforcement partners. Follow-up services are provided by mental health consumers to help link patients to ongoing care and treatment to mitigate future crises.

During the first nine months of operation, the team responded to 533 calls and provided 128 referrals to supportive services. Additionally, there were 325 Mobile Support Team follow-up calls.

If we fast forward to our national debate on how to address the insufficient treatment of mental health disorders and the violent use of firearms, the Mobile Support Team can and should be a model of how we can both reduce violent gun death (suicide and homicide) and improve treatment for the mentally ill.

State Senate President Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has proposed a plan for the state to fund 25 additional mobile crisis support teams throughout California using Sonoma County's team as a model. Initiatives such as Sonoma County's Mobile Support Team are reducing the need for expensive hospitalizations, shortening hospital stays, preventing emergency room visits and diverting individuals from the criminal justice system. More important, lives have certainly been saved and outcomes improved for individuals and families who are confronted with an overwhelming psychotic episode.

Recently, a therapist ran after me as I walked to my car after an event. She wanted to thank me for my service because, as she expressed, one of her clients had been the first patient treated by the Mobile Support Team. She felt it had been a life-changing intervention.

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