The Anchorage Mobile Crisis Team just received a call from dispatch.
“It looks like maybe a panic attack happening just down the street from us, actually,” Jennifer Pierce said last Friday, about four hours into her 10-hour shift.
Pierce is a licensed physician and part of a two-person team tasked with treating mental health crises in Anchorage. For the past year, the Mobile Crisis Team, or MCT, has been on the road, responding to mental health crises. A few months ago, it received funding from the city to operate 24/7.
The team’s gray SUV pulled into the parking lot of Ronnie 2, an east side sushi restaurant. Nearby, Pierce and her partner, paramedic Michael Riley, found a woman in her car. She told Riley that she had a history of anxiety-induced panic attacks – but this time it was worse.
“She actually expressed that the anxiety is different this time,” Riley said. “It hasn’t felt like this before, and the pain in my chest is feeling different.”
An ambulance was also at the scene. The woman was taken to the hospital.
Responding to calls like this – where someone is under mental health stress – is what the Mobile Crisis Team is all about. The idea is that it’s a better way to address mental health emergencies in the city. The team of first responders not only takes some of the pressure off the police and firefighters who may have responded in the past. But they can also connect people to the most appropriate resources. So far, Riley said, it seems to be working.
“Of the over a thousand 911 calls that we’ve responded to — meaning the calls that have come through the 911 system — 800 of them stayed in the community,” Riley said. “That’s 800 calls that didn’t go to the emergency room, didn’t go to the ED, and didn’t go to jail.”
This data does not include all responses to non-emergency 311 calls.
Dispatchers who answer 311 and 9-1-1 calls are trained in emergency medical services and basic anatomy, and they decide which calls should go to the Mobile Crisis Team.
“We evaluate all those different aspects of a patient to determine where we’re going to land,” Anchorage Fire Department Chief Dispatcher Don Tallman said. “And basically, people who end up in the MCT realm of things is because we’ve gotten a call to determine that they don’t need an ambulance, they probably don’t need to go to the hospital, but they have some kind of crisis that they need to talk to someone.”
It’s essential for the team to have both a paramedic and a clinician, Riley said.
Doctors like him take the lead in situations that require immediate medical attention.
“Having a doctor on the team, we can make the first contact, assess and say yes or no, this is not primarily medical, or yes, it was in this case where we can hand over the medical device,” said Riley.
For cases involving mental health crises, a clinician like Pierce takes the lead.
Shortly after Riley and Pierce left the sushi restaurant that Friday, they received another phone call. A man named Michael Joseph said a young man he has known for years with a history of psychiatric problems was having a crisis at Centennial Campground.
“Naked, in the woods, incoherent, out of mind, restless,” Joseph told them. “Just a pair of boots, that’s all.”
It was the team’s first call to the camp since it became a makeshift camp for the homeless last month. after Sullivan Arena closes shelter from Mayor Dave Bronson.
By the time the team arrived, the young man was dressed and sitting on a bench. Pierce sat down to talk to him.
“He was willing to talk to me,” Pierce said. “We had a good conversation. Willing to communicate his needs.”
Pierce said sometimes those conversations mean helping people take their medication or working on breathing exercises to reduce stress or simply discussing what led to their breakdown. On average, she said, she spends about 30 minutes with a person during a response. But it really varies.
“I’ve been with someone for three hours, or I’ve been with someone for five minutes,” she said. “They just needed a little control and they were good. They said, ‘I’m good to go, thanks.’ So it really depends.”
After Pierce spoke with the man in Centennial, city park officials stepped in to take him to a main office and connect him to resources. Pierce said the Mobile Crisis Team will check on him the next day.
“Just to check and make sure he has all the resources he needs to stay here where he wants to be, safe,” Pierce said.
Joseph, who called 911 for his friend, saw the answer unfold. He said he had never heard of the mobile crisis team before until today, and is glad they arrived.
“They were very concerned, very polite and very professional,” he said. “I really want to help and get all the information. Everything they could do to help this young man, without telling him his name. So I’m really very grateful that they came here. It’s great and now maybe this young man will get the help he so desperately needs.”
Riley said he finds that since Mobile Crisis Team members are not police officers, it can sometimes be easier to respond to mental health calls.
“You know, we love our brothers in blue, absolutely,” Riley said. “But it’s broken down barriers where they were like, ‘We’re not cops.’ This is not the angle we are coming to. We are a licensed physician and a paramedic. We’re here to help with what’s going on right now.”
In total, the team answered eight calls that day. Most were in East Anchorage, but Pierce said in the past she has driven around town.
“We’d be deep into South Anchorage, and then we got a call to Eagle River, and then we got a call to West Anchorage, and then we got a call to Eagle River,” Pierce said, laughing. “So we put a lot of miles on the car that day.”
Currently, the Mobile Crisis Team operates for 10 hours a day – from 10 am to 8 pm – seven days a week. In April, the Anchorage Assembly put money to fund the team for 24/7 service. The funding was finalized in May after Mayor Bronson vetoed the funding and The assembly overcame it.
Pierce said he is looking forward to the team expanding. There have been times when they have been hit so hard, more traditional responders like the police have had to take the calls. Pierce said she thinks the overnight operation will also be a big help to the community.
“We can help people who are feeling suicidal in the middle of the night, or having an anxiety attack, or who don’t know where to turn or what to do, and say, ‘We’re here for you,'” she said. . “Even in the middle of the night, you have support.”
Pierce and Riley said it will likely be some time before the team is fully staffed, but they say the funding could also go toward funding a second Mobile Crisis Team vehicle to respond during times of high volume. high of calls. Right now, people can call 911 or 311 and ask for the Mobile Crisis Team when they need mental health support.