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Mobile crisis responders provide an alternative to police and paramedics

Posted at 5:42 PM, Nov 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-24 20:43:31-05

PHOENIX — Armed only with compassion, mobile crisis teams respond to emergencies all over Maricopa County when people need immediate mental or behavioral health help.

ABC15 spent two nights with a crisis team from Terros Health in October.

NEED HELP NOW? Crisis line phone numbers are located at the end of this story.

As the sun sets on the Valley, the night’s just getting started for mobile crisis responders Nicole Hughes, a licensed social worker, and Kirsten Hernandez, a mental health worker with degrees in psychology and sociology.

Wearing polo shirts and driving in a ‘mom van,’ the duo purposely looks low-key.

ABC15 Investigator Melissa Blasius follows mobile crisis responders Kirsten Hernandez and Nicole Hughes on mental health calls

“We don't come in with flashing lights or anything like that,” Hernandez said. “We're just there to see how we can help.”

Hughes and Hernandez respond to emergencies involving mental and behavioral health crises. The majority of their clients are people contemplating suicide. They also get calls for help with anxiety, depression and PTSD. They can also respond and provide resources for people who are experiencing homelessness or struggling with substance abuse.

Hughes and Hernandez work for Terros Health, which has 13 mobile crisis vans working around the clock in Maricopa County.

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One of 13 Terros mobile crisis vans that operate 24/7 in Maricopa County

“I was just at the gas station the other night, and someone came up and said, "Oh, Terros saved my life,"” Hernandez said. “We are aware of the impact we can have in the community.”

Before a mobile crisis team gets involved, Solari Crisis and Human Services, which operates Maricopa County’s crisis line, tries to deescalate a situation over the phone. Typically, the calls come directly into the crisis center, but 911 dispatch centers will also transfer calls.

More than 20,000 calls come into the crisis line a month, and 70 percent of callers are stabilized over the phone, according to Solari. If a caller can’t be stabilized in 20 or 30 minutes of phone discussion, a mobile crisis team is asked to respond to the person’s location.

“Where the mobile teams come in - and really specialize - is when there's a difficult case,” said Solari Operations Director Matthew Moody. “You're always going to have a better connection with someone when you're face-to-face with them.”

The crisis teams help in mental and behavioral health emergencies, which need immediate intervention, when there is no crime involved nor a level of danger where an armed police officer is needed. The vans’ average response time is about 45 minutes.

It is about pairing the right kind of responder with the circumstances they are best able to handle.

“You want to use a hammer when the hammer’s right, or you want to use a screwdriver when the screwdrivers right,” Moody said.

Mobile crisis teams operate differently from officers in many ways.

“We're confidential, so we're not allowed to tell anybody their business unless they're an immediate danger to themselves or others, compared to police, which is always public record,” Hernandez explained.

Crisis teams try to stabilize their clients without taking them to an emergency room or psychiatric facility. Terros says it succeeds in community stabilization 80% of the time. If a person wants a higher level of care, Terros can transport them in the van, but if someone needs involuntary commitment, the police are responsible for handling the case.

“There are the movies, where people think, ‘Oh, the mobile vans coming to take us away somewhere,’” said Patrick Norris, clinical manager for Terros Health. “It's not about that; it's about helping you get stable and safe where you are.”

Kirsten Hernandez and Nicole arrive at a Paradise Valley elementary school to provide crisis services to a student.

Over ABC15’s two-day ride-along, Hughes and Hernandez helped an elementary school child from an affluent neighborhood, a person in crisis in a quiet Chandler apartment complex, and a homeless person in a shelter for senior citizens.

Crisis teams often spent 90-120 minutes with a client. First, they build rapport and help deescalate the immediate crisis. Then, they create a safety plan together to avoid the crisis again. Third, they talk about treatment options that fit with the client's needs and insurance, and they discuss how to schedule an appoint to continue their care. They leave clients with a written copy of the safety plan, and someone from Terros follows up with a phone call to check on the client within 24 hours.

With clipboards and compassion, Hughes and Hernandez meet people on their worst day, so they can have better days to come.

“It's nice to know one day, maybe, I’ll see them in the community and see them as a healthier, happier person,” Hughes said.

In Arizona, mobile crisis services are provided free of charge to the patient. They are funded through AHCCCS, the state Medicaid system.

Suicide and Crisis Hotlines by County

  • Maricopa County served by Mercy Care

    • 1-800-631-1314 or 602-222-9444 
  • Cochise, Graham, Greenlee, La Paz, Pima, Pinal, Santa Cruz and Yuma Counties served by Arizona Complete Health - Complete Care Plan

    • 1-866-495-6735 
  • Apache, Coconino, Gila, Mohave, Navajo and Yavapai Counties served by Health Choice Arizona

    • 1-877-756-4090 
  • Gila River and Ak-Chin Indian Communities

    • 1-800-259-3449 
  • Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community

    • 1-855-331-6432 
  • Tohono O’odham Nation

    • 1-844-423-8759 

Teenage specific Hotline

  • Teen Life Line phone or text

    • 602-248-TEEN (8336) 

National 24-Hour Crisis Hotlines

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

    • 1-800-273-TALK (8255) 
  • National Substance Use and Disorder Issues Referral and Treatment Hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357) 
  • Text the word "HOME" to 741741 

COVID-19 Crisis Counseling

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