New Mobile Crisis Team to shift Anchorage mental health crisis response from police to behavioral health experts

Entrance to Anchorage's Providence Hospital emergency room. (Josh Edge/Alaska Public Media)
Entrance to Anchorage’s Providence Hospital emergency room. (Josh Edge/Alaska Public Media)

The Anchorage Assembly approved funding last week for a new mobile intervention team that will respond to mental health crisis calls. The program, which is funded by alcohol tax revenue, is meant to shift the city’s mental health response from police to behavioral health experts.

The Anchorage Police Department currently sees more than 7,000 mental health crisis calls a year. These range from a person at risk of suicide to someone experiencing an episode of psychosis. 

But according to Jason Lessard, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Anchorage, and experts nationwide, police officers usually aren’t the best resource to help someone in a mental health crisis.

“Anytime you have a response to a crisis situation, and you show up with a badge and a gun and a cruiser, it oftentimes heightens that situation — [there’s] stigma involved, the person feels like they’re doing something criminal,” he said. “They may not be doing something criminal at all, but when the response is law enforcement, it puts that person on defense.”

Lessard partners with APD on trainings for crisis intervention team officers. He said not enough officers are trained to identify different types of behavioral health issues to effectively de-escalate crisis situations. On top of that, there just isn’t a good system in place to get people the services they need.

“If you respond with law enforcement, really, they’re looking at two options, which is jail or the hospital,” he said.

According to research from consulting firm Agnew Beck, this results in reduced capacity at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. Plus, the state corrections system ends up acting as a stand-in for mental health services. Currently, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of Alaska’s incarcerations each year are people with mental health and/or substance use disorders.

Anchorage is exploring a different approach to mental health response and the new Mobile Crisis Team is part of that. The team, which will be under the fire department, will include behavioral health clinicians, paramedics and case managers — people who are trained to listen to and stabilize someone in a crisis and then connect them with the resources they need, whether it’s medical care, a shelter referral or other social services.

Lessard said this approach has saved other communities millions of dollars in police officers’ time, hospital bills and corrections spending.

“It’s a better utilization of their resources. We’re just finding better outcomes for individuals in crisis, and, ultimately, a savings to the community.”

In a statement, APD Deputy Chief Ken McCoy said the department has studied similar models in the Lower 48 and is “pleased to see this first step in addressing the need.”

Assemblywoman Meg Zalatel, who advocated for the program in the upcoming year’s budget, said the Mobile Crisis Team will be able to coordinate with APD and the Community Safety Patrol, which helps people incapacitated by drugs or alcohol, to provide specialized responses.

“It really has to be open communication to ensure that we leverage all of these services to assist the individual, but always remembering that we need to do so in a way that puts the individual at the center of that,” she said.

Zalatel said she and other assembly members have wanted to launch a specialized mental health response for a while, and the passage of the alcohol tax this year created revenue to fund it. She said funding it at the municipal level will help insulate mental health response services from state budget cuts.

“They’ve been underfunded, funding has been cut by the state. So for us to step into this role lets us have a lens towards coordination so that we don’t silo those services and we can make them the most effective as possible.”

The Mobile Crisis Team is currently funded at $1.5 million annually and set to come online by March or early April next year. It will be available 12 hours a day at first, but Zalatel said it’s very important to see it ramp up to a 24/7 service by July. 

“We don’t want to take any chances,” she said. “Quite frankly, if someone’s calling for behavioral health support, we don’t want it to be, ‘Well at this time of day, you’re going to get a mental health clinician; at this time of day, you’re going to get an APD response.’”

Once it’s around the clock, the city can start to bill Medicaid for some individuals. The city projects Medicaid could end up funding up to a quarter of the program’s cost.

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Kavitha George is the host of Alaska Morning News at Alaska Public Media. She also reports on business, labor and the economy. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org.

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