Mental health crisis response sees historic support

One of the enduring challenges for disability movements is to ensure that we all get equitable access, not a solution that only works for some. Mental health communities have struggled for years to show that there is a better way than using the police and the emergency room to respond to mental health crisis. These approaches are inequitable and push people away from their community and toward institutional settings.

They are also costly. Law enforcement contact can quickly escalate and in-patient hospital care can be more than $1,000 per day. Often, hospitalization can lead to significant setbacks in recovery, leaving the person with more problems and less hope.

Mobile crisis is a cornerstone in addressing this need. A provider or team is dispatched to where an individual is. They then assess and de-escalate the situation to address immediate needs. Crisis stabilization services continue beyond the initial encounter, connecting the individual to community services, a key asset to recovery. However, some counties lack any mobile crisis resources and others keep limited hours. In Hennepin County, strong teams have been developed, but are outmatched on a per capita basis.

In response, this legislative session Minnesota has pushed forward with $46 million in new funding for mental health, the biggest investment ever made. The bulk is going to filling in the gaps. Our slogan for the year was “We know what works, let’s build on it.” We wanted to reflect the consensus and data that shows these models are effective. Roll-out and consistency across Minnesota were the biggest remaining barriers. $8.57 million will go to expanding and improving those teams, as well as adding residential crisis beds throughout the state. By providing a safe place to stay while getting connected to rapid access psychiatry, this service boasts a diversion rate of about 95 percent for individuals who otherwise would have met hospital level of care.

Another key improvement was funding for protected transport under Medical Assistance. Instead of putting people in handcuffs and a squad car, this would be an unmarked transportation option with a plain-clothes driver. Rural sheriffs testified this year about countless hours spent getting to open hospital beds. Local crisis beds and protected transport can help us turn the corner on this trend.

We all need different kinds of accommodations and care in order to fully participate in society. Dedicated mental health crisis response tells Minnesotans living with mental illnesses that they deserve the best chance possible to seek care on voluntary and constructive terms. We will keep pressing, but 2015 has been a defining year in bringing the promise of community mental health to light.

Benjamin Ashley-Wurtmann is a policy and outreach associate for the Mental Health Association of Minnesota. The association is part of the Mental Health Legislative Network.