After a grandmother calls a mental health crisis line for help after her grandson with intellectual disabilities and a history of mental illness attacked her, a Philadelphia mobile crisis unit is called for help. Crisis counselor Cedric McNear gathers paperwork and looks up the address while his colleague Teralynn Turner reaches out to the grandmother for more information. With two other mental health professionals, they head over to assist and defuse a mental health crisis. They don’t have sirens or flashing lights and unlike police, they don’t have handcuffs and guns. In July, a three-digit national mental health hotline was launched to make it easier to get help in a mental health crisis. Eventually, it will replace a harder-to-remember 10-digit number known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The line, 988, has already seen an increase in use — including in Philadelphia — and most calls are resolved on the phone. But when a call needs an in-person response, a mobile crisis unit often responds, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. Between January and July of this year, about 11 percent of calls led to a mobile crisis unit being dispatched.
Mental health advocates say that the success of the push to make 988 a one-call crisis solution depends on the ability to dispatch mental health and behavioral providers. The alternative is relying on police, which some fear will lead to escalation. About a quarter of people shot and killed by police in recent years were experiencing a mental health crisis. Responding to the grandmother’s call, Turner gets her on the phone and learns that she isn’t injured but sounds overwhelmed. Her grandson has never attacked her previously. To avoid drawing attention to a family’s mental health issues, the unmarked van is parked a block or two away. Tteam members do not wear uniforms, just name tags. Inside the house, McNear and Turner first made sure that the grandmother didn’t need medical attention. The grandson was in a different room, talking about killing himself or others. After looking for clues of an imminent danger like having a weapon or a specific plan of action, the team assess the threat as low. When they offer to take him to see a psychiatrist in the hospital, he agrees. “He recognized that he needed help,” McNear said. “That was the most important thing.” The team was dispatched from the Consortium, a nonprofit behavioral health organization, and one of four working with the city to respond to calls that arrive through 988, or the Philadelphia Crisis Lines, 215-685-6440. Those who work at the Consortium are aware of what can go wrong when police, and not trained mental health professionals, are the only option in such crises and provide mental health aid in its place.