A new crisis team in Fairbanks is responding to mental health calls and freeing up other emergency resources

Members of Fairbanks Mobile Crisis Team (left to right) Cassandra Ball, Heather Roberts-Kelley, Mistie Laurence, Jasminne Johnson-Conley, and Troy Jackson. (Anne Hillman/Alaska Public Media)

It was midmorning on a Tuesday in early November when a person in Fairbanks called 9-1-1. The dispatchers alerted Heather Roberts-Kelley, a mental health clinician with Alaska Behavioral Health and a member of the city’s new Mobile Crisis Team. 

The team consists of a mental health clinician and a peer support navigator. It just started in Fairbanks two months ago, and its role is to provide care and support for mental health issues and crises that law enforcement and fire departments are not trained to deal with.

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As Roberts-Kelley prepared to go meet the caller at their home, she read notes about the situation on her phone using a secure app so she had a better idea of what to expect at the scene. 

Every situation is different, she said. Sometimes the crisis team stages nearby while police assess the situation. Other times they go on their own.

“It’s nice to know some history before you run out the door, you know?” she said. “What is going on at the moment. And I can read all those notes.”

Roberts-Kelley, who started responding to crisis calls years ago in Colorado, headed out the door wearing winter boots and jeans and hopped into a regular, unmarked SUV. No one would ever know it was an emergency response situation, and that’s the point. Fairbanks’ Mobile Crisis Team is there to calm things down and not draw any attention. On the way to the scene, Roberts-Kelley stopped by a place called The Bridge, a local non-profit, to pick up a peer support navigator.

Peer support navigators have lived experience with mental health issues and can relate to people in crisis, making them feel more comfortable, said Kerry Phillips, one of the peer navigators who works on the crisis team. They also connect the people the crisis team sees with long-term support during follow-up calls and visits.

“We don’t just see them the one time and say, ‘These are the people that can help you’ and just drop it,” Phillips said. “Because it’s not going to do any good. And I’m sure that’s what people have done to them their entire life when it comes to stuff like this.”

The Mobile Crisis Team members are certified in their fields and go through weeks of additional crisis response training to learn how to de-escalate situations, assess suicide risks and more. The peers also know how to navigate complicated systems to get substance use treatment, housing, and other forms of support.

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When they are on the scene, they are having conversations with the people, de-escalating situations, and assessing needs, said Roberts-Kelley. 

“It might look like I’m not really doing anything or working,” she said. “I might be making jokes. But I assess the entire time. I’m making a safety plan or I’m gathering information for it the entire time.”

The team takes quick notes on an iPad so that the peers who follow-up know the basics of the situation. Roberts-Kelley said meeting people where they are at is a less intimidating way to introduce them to mental health services than asking them to come into an office or a clinic.

The Mobile Crisis Team is very new in Fairbanks. They started taking calls on Oct. 7 and as of Nov. 30 had responded to about 50. 

Phillips, a former 9-1-1 dispatcher, still spends lots of time explaining to law enforcement officers exactly what the team does. She tells them her number one goal is to help people in crisis find long-term stability. 

“And then number two is to help take a load off of you guys cause you aren’t clinicians, you aren’t mental health responders,” she said she tells them. “And you know, as much as I know, that you show up on a scene in uniform with a gun on your hip, that’s going to escalate the scene nine times out of 10. So we want to make it less stressful or less busy or less annoying for 9-1-1, for the fire department, for the police department.”

Local governments are creating Mobile Crisis Teams across the nation based on a successful model developed in Arizona. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration considers the model Fairbanks is using to be a best practice for mental health response and for keeping people both out of the hospital and out of the criminal justice system. 

Deputy Chief Rick Sweet of the Fairbanks Police Department said he knows that law enforcement officers aren’t the right people to respond to most mental health crises.

“Jail is not the place to do mental health work,” he said. “We’re throwing a law enforcement fix to something that needs a doctor level.”

In the past, officers spent hours responding to calls and taking people to the hospital’s emergency department because that was the only place for them to get help, Sweet said. Many people got involved with the justice system when all they really needed was mental health support. The mobile crisis team prevents that from happening and makes it possible for Sweet’s severely understaffed department to focus their resources on problems that do need police response, he said. 

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The Alaska Mental Health Trust currently funds the Fairbanks Mobile Crisis Team, but the organizations that staff the team will soon be able to bill Medicaid to pay for some of the costs. 

After an hour or so, Roberts-Kelley returned from the crisis call. Roberts-Kelley said the police didn’t need to respond. 

“The one I just went on, it wasn’t really a crisis, but it was to that person,” she said. The only number the person knew to call in what felt like an emergency was 9-1-1, so she did. The crisis team showed up on scene to calm the person down and help them find better, long-term alternatives, said Roberts-Kelley.

Every call is different, sometimes a person needs suicide intervention, or substance use treatment or a connection with in-home care. But Roberts-Kelley said timing is critical. 

“If you can get them in the moment, when people are in a crisis, usually around that time they are ready to make a change, too,” she said. “It’s magic.”

The Fairbanks team is still working out the kinks, from technology issues to letting people know that they are available, but they’re hoping their presence will be magic, too. 

This story is part of an ongoing solutions journalism project at Alaska Public Media about destigmatizing mental health. The project is funded by a grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust but is editorially independent.

Anne Hillman is the engagement editor for a special elections-focused project at Alaska Public Media. She also runs Mental Health Mosaics, a project of Out North that uses art, podcasts, poetry, and creativity to explore mental health and foster deeper conversations around the topic. Reach her at ahillman@alaskapublic.org.

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