Anchorage’s Mobile Crisis Team just got a call from dispatch.
“Sounds like possibly a panic attack that’s happening just down the street from us, actually,” Jennifer Pierce said on a recent Friday, about four hours into her 10-hour shift.
Pierce is a licensed clinician and part of a two-person team tasked with addressing mental health crises in Anchorage. For the last year, the Mobile Crisis Team, or MCT, has been on the streets, responding to mental health crises. A few months ago, it got funding from the city to operate 24/7.
The team’s gray SUV pulled into the parking lot of Ronnie 2, a sushi restaurant on the East side. Nearby, Pierce and her partner, paramedic Michael Riley, found a woman in her car. She told Riley she has a history of anxiety-induced panic attacks — but this time it was worse.
“She actually expressed that the anxiety is different this time,” Riley said. “It has not felt like this before, and the chest pain is feeling different.”
An ambulance was also on scene. The woman got sent to the hospital.
Responding to calls like this — where someone is in mental health duress — is what the Mobile Crisis Team is all about. The idea is that it’s a better way to address mental health emergencies in the city. The team of first responders not only takes some of the pressure off of police and firefighters, who may have responded in the past. But they also can connect people with the most appropriate resources. So far, Riley said, it seems to be working.
“With over a thousand 911 calls that we’ve responded to — so calls that have come through the 911 system — 800 of those stayed in the community,” Riley said. “That’s 800 calls that didn’t go to the emergency room, didn’t go to the ED and didn’t go to a jail.”
That data doesn’t include all of the responses to calls to the 311 non-emergency line.
Dispatchers who answer the 311 and 9-1-1 calls are trained in emergency medical services and basic anatomy and they decide what calls should go to the Mobile Crisis Team.
“We evaluate all those different aspects of a patient to determine where we’re going to land,” said lead Anchorage Fire Department dispatcher Don Tallman. “And essentially, the people that end up in the MCT realm of things is because we’ve triaged a call to determine they don’t need an ambulance, they don’t probably need to go to the hospital, but they’re having some sort of crisis that they need to speak to somebody.”
It’s key that the team has both a paramedic and a clinician, said Riley.
Paramedics like him take the lead on situations that require immediate medical attention.
“By having a medic on the team, we can make first contact, evaluate and say yes or no, this isn’t primarily medical, or yes it was in this instance where we can hand off to the medic rig,” Riley said.
For cases dealing with mental health crises, a clinician like Pierce takes the lead.
Soon after Riley and Pierce left the sushi restaurant that Friday, they got another call. A man named Michael Joseph said a young man he’s known for years with a history of psychiatric issues was having a crisis at Centennial Campground.
“Naked, in the woods, incoherent, out of his mental, distraught,” Joseph told them. “Just a pair of boots on, that’s all.”
It was the team’s first call to the campground since it became a makeshift homeless camp last month, following the closure of the Sullivan Arena shelter by Mayor Dave Bronson.
By the time the team arrived, the young man was clothed and sitting at a bench. Pierce sat down to talk with him.
“He was willing to talk to me,” Pierce said. “We had a good conversation. Willing to communicate his needs.”
Pierce said sometimes those talks mean helping people get their medication or working on breathing exercises to reduce stress or just discussing what led to their breakdown. On average, she said, she spends about 30 minutes with a person during a response. But it really varies.
“I’ve been with someone for three hours, or I’ve been with someone for five minutes,” she said. “They just needed a little check-in and they were good. They were like, ‘I’m good to go, thank you.’ So it really depends.”
After Pierce talked to the man at Centennial, city park officials stepped in to take him to a main office and connect him with resources. Pierce said the Mobile Crisis Team will check on him the next day.
“Just to check in and make sure that he has all the resources that he needs to stay out here where he wants to be, safely,” Pierce said.
Joseph, who called emergency services for his friend, watched the response unfold. He said he’d never heard of the mobile crisis team before until today, and he’s glad they arrived.
“They were very concerned, very gracious, and very professional,” he said. “Very wanting to help and get all the information. Anything they could do to help this young man, without saying his name. So I’m really so thankful they came here. It’s great, and now maybe this young man will get some help that he needs so desperately.”
Riley said he finds that since the Mobile Crisis Team members aren’t police officers, it can sometimes be easier to respond to mental health calls.
“You know, we love our brothers in blue, absolutely,” Riley said. “But that has broken down barriers when they were like,’ We’re not police.’ That’s not the angle we’re coming at. We’re a licensed clinician and a paramedic. We’re here to help with what’s going on right now.”
In total, the team responded to eight calls that day. Most were in East Anchorage, but Pierce said in the past she’s driven all around town.
“We would be in deep South Anchorage, and then we got a call in Eagle River, and then we got a call all the way in West Anchorage, and then we had a call in Eagle River,” Pierce said and laughed. “So we put a lot of miles on the car that day.”
Currently, the Mobile Crisis Team operates for 10 hours a day — between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m. — seven days a week. In April, the Anchorage Assembly put money toward funding the team for 24/7 service. The funding was finalized in May, after Mayor Bronson vetoed the funding, and the Assembly overrode him.
Pierce said she’s looking forward to the team expanding. There have been times when they’re so slammed, more traditional responders like police have had to take the calls. Pierce said she thinks working overnight will also be a huge help for the community.
“We can help people who are feeling suicidal in the middle of the night, or having an anxiety attack, or not knowing where to turn or what to do, and to say, ‘We’re here for you,’” she said. “Even in the middle of the night, you have support.”
Pierce and Riley said it’ll likely be a while before the team is fully staffed, but they say the funding could even go toward funding a second Mobile Crisis Team vehicle to respond during high call volume times. For now, people can call 911 or 311 and request the Mobile Crisis Team when they need mental health support.