Mental Health First Responders A New Tool for Wellness
by Forrest Dunbar, Meg Zalatel, Chris Constant
Today, if you or someone you know experiences a mental health crisis in Anchorage and someone calls 911, chances are the first to respond will be a police officer. The Anchorage Police Department receives more than 7,000 of these types of calls every year, and while APD officers are highly trained professionals, they are not specialists in mental or behavioral health.
In other parts of the country, local governments have realized that the mismatch between police officers and mental health crisis calls burdens their police departments and leads to poor outcomes for those in crisis. In response, a number of cities have created “Mental Health First Responder” programs, so that the most qualified professionals can be deployed.
In November, the Anchorage Assembly passed our 2021 budget, and incorporated new revenues from the alcohol tax approved by voters in April. After months of work and negotiations, this budget includes a new Mental Health First Responder program, which we call the Anchorage “Mobile Crisis Team” (MCT).
Though the MCT will be housed in the Anchorage Fire Department, it was leadership from the Police Department that helped make it happen. Deputy Chief Kenneth McCoy, specifically, has been crucial in bringing forward this program by working with the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, the State of Alaska and private providers.This work set the stage for the development of the MCT.
Each MCT unit will consist of a paramedic and mental health clinician, supported by a case manager. After appropriate training, these teams will also include a peer support specialist—someone with lived experience in mental health challenges, who will help the team truly understand what the person going through crisis is feeling, and providing the individual in crisis someone with whom they can more closely relate.
On the day that the Assembly passed the budget, Jason Lessard, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Alaska, stated, “We are thankful to the Assembly for taking this much needed step to change the way our community responds to behavioral health crises. As we have seen proven in other communities in the Lower 48, a shift from a law enforcement-based response to a behavioral health approach related to that of the Mobile Crisis Team model has yielded better outcomes for individuals in crisis.But most importantly, this change has resulted in better utilization of community resources and associated cost savings that come with that.”
Now that the funding is in place, the next step is implementation. Acting Mayor Quinn-Davidson, a co-sponsor while on the Assembly, will doubtlessly do what she can to advance this cause. However, it will be up to the next administration to take on responsibility to ensure that the Mobile Crisis Team not only succeeds but expands into round the clock service. One of the authors of this piece, Forrest Dunbar, is also a candidate for mayor and is committed to seeing that the MCT is funded, trained, and serves Anchorage for years to come. Alaskans have been working for generations to improve their response to individuals in mental health crisis, providing essential interventions in a manner that respects the dignity of those in need, and relieves some of the overwhelming burden placed on our public safety professionals.Anchorage’s implementation of the Mobile Crisis Team is the next step in that evolution.
PROUDLY POWERED BY SOL DE MEDIANOCHE CO. Sol de Medianoche is a monthly publication of the Latino community in Anchorage, Alaska