Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office expands partnership with team of mental health specialists

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A team of six people wearing black vests with the initials “MST” on the back sat with law enforcement officers in a spacious room inside the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office on Friday afternoon. Officers and those wearing the vests discussed calls they had responded to together during the past week that involved someone in a mental health crisis situation.

“I think if we make it a routine practice to just provide some resources during every mental health caller you respond to and give them direct contact information to a behavioral health specialist that could really help in the long term,” one man wearing a vest said during the meeting while the officers listened intently.

The initials on the back of the vests stand for mobile support team, and those wearing them are licensed behavioral health specialists who routinely work with law enforcement officers in specific parts of the county. Together they often respond to calls involving a person experiencing a mental health crisis.

The county recently expanded the team’s coverage to include the west county and Sonoma Valley, to give it nine new service areas in places like Guerneville, Sebastopol and Forestville.

“Sonoma County for a long time has been dedicated to improving relationships between behavioral health and law enforcement,” said Karin Sellite, a client care manager for the county and director of the mobile support team.

Sellite said that for years her team had been getting requests from community members to expand to west county, including requests from law enforcement departments who had heard about the program’s success.

“We talk to law enforcement often about situations they are dealing with, and the need to address mental health of course is everywhere,” Sellite said. “Law enforcement is often responding to calls with limited resources, and they are amazing at what they do but are not therapists.

“That’s where we come in,” she said.

The Sonoma County mental health mobile support team launched in 2012. Since then, it has worked with six different law enforcement agencies, including the Santa Rosa Police Department and the Petaluma Police Department, among others.

The goal of the collaborative efforts between law enforcement and the mobile team’s behavioral specialists is to lessen the number of times officers are compelled to place a person in a mental health crisis in a psychiatric hold, as well as decrease the amount of time spent on each call, Sellite said.

Sonoma County Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Spencer Crum said that a lot of times a person in crisis just needs to talk to someone that is not a deputy, who also often doesn’t have the time or ability to always help in those cases.

The success of the partnership of law enforcement officers and the team of mental health specialists has been considerable, Crum said.

“We now just have much better training overall to handle these situations,” Crum said. “MST’s presence reduces anxiety of people, and then they find out these new resources are available to them and that they don’t always need to ride in the back of a police car which can be traumatic to them.”

Lt. Adrian Mancilla is the liaison between the county Sheriff’s Office and mobile support team.

The biggest success Mancilla has seen is that people they respond to in a mental health crisis have started to see law enforcement in a different light and understand in some small way they are all responding together to be of help, he said.

Mancilla said his officers call the mental health specialists to a scene after they have checked for safety. Once that is cleared and officers are working in a jurisdiction that falls under the team’s coverage area, they connect the person in a crisis with a behavioral health specialist and let them take the lead, he said.

Most commonly, Mancilla said, the types of calls are those in which a person is triggered by a situation that induces extreme stress or is adjusting to new medication.

People are also less adept at managing their stress now than ever, Sellite said, which is why a mental health crisis isn’t limited to certain types of people.

“We see people on the street who have been living like that for years, and we also see people in Fountaingrove (neighborhood) and everywhere in between,” Sellite said.

MST will provide a listening ear, give resources to different types of treatment options and will even connect them to mental health care specialists, Sellite said.

“We really have seen that we need each other, because we need them and they need us to do our job effectively and efficiently,” Mancilla said. “We just want to be able to service the mental health community in the best way possible.”

When law enforcement agencies first began working with the mobile support team members, Sellite admitted she was worried how they would be welcomed.

Sellite’s initial thoughts were that law enforcement would not be readily open to discuss mental health and that her team might be shut out of important conversations.

“Now it just feels like we are part of the team and we attend briefing sessions with all different law enforcement groups,” Sellite said. “Officers will even call us up to talk to us after a situation to get feedback on how they handled it and sometimes will even open up to us about things they may be struggling with.

“They trust our team and enjoy working with us,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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