Des Moines County and the surrounding area is mired in a mental health crisis — a crisis that stretches across the state of Iowa.
The Elevate Mobile Crisis Response Team, under the auspices of the Mental Health Agency of Southeast Iowa, is looking to close the gaps in the state’s mental health system.
They’re doing it right now. Anyone within an eight-county region — Des Moines, Henry, Lee, Louisa, Van Buren, Jefferson, Washington, and Keokuk — can call the “988” mental health line.
Two responders with experience in mental health counseling will arrive at your door within an hour. Jennifer Stevenson, director of the Mobile Crisis Response Service, said there is no mental health problem too large or small.
Stevenson would never dare define how important an individual’s mental health crisis might be. They are all important.
“If you are struggling, we will come right to you. And right to you means the home, the car, the gas station, the hotel lobby. Wherever it might be,” Stevenson said. The unit doesn’t just rely on direct calls for help. Anyone can call — a family member worried about self-harm to a gas station attendant concerned a patron is in crisis.
“I really see the mobile crisis as a community unifier,” Stevenson said.
So does Sgt. Chad Zahn, who serves as the public information officer for the Burlington Police Department. Zahn has been pursuing the concept of a mobile crisis unit for several years. He’s delighted the organization is now serving local residents.
“We liken it to an ambulance for someone suffering a mental crisis,” Zahn said. “You have to get to the cause of that crisis, and that’s something we aren’t able to do, strictly because of the amount of time it takes.”
It isn’t easy, and that is why the mobile crisis response team has a close relationship with the police department. Many of the department’s repeat offenders — locals suffering mental health problems in a public setting — now have someone to talk to them after the initial police call.
“Our relationship with law enforcement is critical. We are here to help them. They are asked to be pseudo-professionals in everything,” Stevenson said. “They can get back to the policing, and we can do the follow-up care,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson said the responders will work in pairs for safety’s sake, and police will respond to any possible dangerous calls first.
Much of the legwork that determines the safety of a situation will be done over the phone through the Mobile Crisis Response Service. The responders will show up in their private vehicles, acting discreetly. There are no uniforms or name badges. Stevenson doesn’t want to attract attention to matters that people want to keep private.
“This is a program where someone is experiencing a crisis right now, and we’re able to be with them right now,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson is staffing up with more responders right now, who will cover the gamut from social workers to police officers.
Those who don’t have enough crisis response training will receive instruction.
Of course, not everyone wants help — even if they may need it. Stevenson said responders aren’t pushy. If they respond to the same person 20 times and are told to leave 20 times, that’s what they’ll do.
Eventually — maybe the 21st or 22nd time — they can make a connection to that person better. In some circumstances, they may be preventing someone from taking their own life.
“We’re really doing triage out in the field,” Stevenson said. “We’re looking at how we can help you and support and keep you safe for the next 24 hours.”
Zahn provided a recent example of the mobile crisis unit action. Police officers recently had to take someone to the hospital who was suffering a mental health crisis. Though the Burlington Police Department trains its officers to deal with those situations, they also have to be available for the next call.
That leaves an officer about 20 minutes to deal with the situation – mostly as a taxi service to the hospital. The officer leaves shortly after, and often, so does the patient.
That didn’t happen this time, Zahn said.
The Mobile Crisis team responded to the hospital after being contacted by law enforcement and was able to stay with the patient for an extended period.
“We were impressed. All of the officers were impressed,” Zahn said.
Stevenson and Zahn don’t claim the program is a cure-all, but it is a desperately needed bandage on an open mental health wound. That wound has festered since the MHI mental health institute in Mount Pleasant closed in 2015.
“We noticed a big difference in the number of calls since that closed,” Zahn said.
The service is free — no matter how many times you call.
“You will never get a bill from anyone,” Stevenson said.