A Model Program

Mobile Support Teams can reduce violence, improve treatment for mentally ill

As I compose this I’m at a national conference presenting information on our Mobile Support Team, an initiative that has saved lives in Sonoma County and one that should be replicated nationwide.

One of my first responsibilities when I became a county supervisor 10 years ago was to settle a lawsuit following the tragic death of Jeremiah Chass, a teenage boy who was shot and killed as he experienced a mental break, dangerously escalating a public safety situation. This case was my motivation for pressing Sonoma County Behavioral Health to establish the Mobile Support Team.

Law enforcement officers routinely provide the first line of crisis response for calls involving persons with mental illness. These calls for service are common, but pose active problems for officers and agencies, as they are not always the best equipped to respond to individuals in crisis. Because of this, these situations can result in significant negative outcomes to the lives of persons with mental illness and their families (due to an increased risk of injury to the person with mental illness) and/or to the officers responding to these events.

Mobile support teams allow law enforcement organizations to call upon mental health professionals to assist them in the field with individuals who may be experiencing mental health crises. The two major goals of these mental health mobile support teams are to resolve the crisis and to reduce criminalization. Studies evaluating such teams found that they had arrest rates ranging from 2 to 13 percent (with an average of less than 7 percent) in contrast to an arrest rate of 21 percent for contacts between non-specialized police officers and persons who were apparently mentally ill.

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 violence and improve treatment for the mentally ill.

Not long after the Mobile Support Team hit the streets, a therapist reached out to thank me because one of her clients was among the first patients treated by the Mobile Support Team. She felt it was a life-changing intervention.

We have a long way to go before we fully integrate mental health services into our health care system, but we are making progress here in Sonoma County, one call at a time.

Shirlee Zane is the 3rd district Sonoma County supervisor.

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