Community weighs Mobile Crisis Response program

Cottage Grove may be on track to see its own version of Eugene’s CAHOOTS program.

Community members and regional stakeholders met on Sept. 22 to gather input and feedback around the idea of creating a Mobile Crisis Response (MCR) team for the area.

The virtual meeting was hosted by the Lane County CCO Rural Advisory Committee in partnership with Be Your Best, Lane Community Health Council, Lane County, PacificSource Community Solutions and Trillium Community Health Plan.

As a key ingredient in the project, the Cottage Grove Police Department (CGPD) is also serving as a planning partner.

In essence, a mobile crisis response team would provide 24/7 crisis intervention for people in distress experiencing mental health or a situational life crisis.

Discussions about establishing such a response team in Cottage Grove have been circulating for years, though not much headway has been made until now.

Some of the conversation has been informed by a local model which already works: the decades-old CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) program in Eugene. The program has established itself nationally as a trailblazer in the field of crisis response.

White Bird Clinic launched CAHOOTS as a community policing initiative in 1989. CAHOOTS workers are not trained in law enforcement, but rather work as an alternative to police responses to non-violent crises.

The program mobilizes two-person teams consisting of a medic (a nurse, paramedic or EMT) and a crisis worker who has substantial training and experience in the mental health field. Law enforcement and community members alike have praised the program’s success in de-escalating situations and finding positive outcomes.

White Bird has also stated that it saves the City of Eugene millions of dollars each year. It also cuts down on ambulance rides and emergency room visits by offering preventive services.

The effort to support rural mobile crisis response elsewhere in the region began in Florence three years ago, a model which has also achieved notable success.

The West Lane MCR, a team of 10 people, has been praised for establishing a strong partnership with law enforcement.

While initially only covering the Florence area, the program has been able to reach out into county area and work with the Lane County Sheriff’s Office as well.

The service is 24/7 and includes support for people with suicide ideation, acute mental health crises, family conflicts, unhoused needs, drug and alcohol issues, and requests for welfare checks.

Kidnapping and drowning events have even been addressed by the team.

Lori Severance, a licensed clinical social worker with the West Lane team, said responders are often out on calls for two or three hours at a time.

“We stay as long as we’re needed and then we provide referrals,” she said.

The program owes part of its success to building strong community collaboration and support, said Severance, including regular meetings with other stakeholders.

This has allowed clients to be connected with services more quickly and better coordinated between community resources.

Some notable lessons from the West Lane project, though, are areas which Cottage Grove may be keen to learn from.

Organizers pointed out that law enforcement may not always have the ability to provide assistance on non-criminal mobile crisis calls, which could be a potential safety issue for MCR workers.

Determining the best way to provide case management services is also a concern. For example, it should be decided whether to contract out these services to a local agency or manage them within the MCR program itself.

The scarcity of resources rural communities possess may alone be somewhat of an issue in this, too.

Senior Program Services Coordinator at Lane County Debbie Heeszel said the West Lane project had made it clear a “one size fits all” approach would be the wrong strategy and recommended a nuanced application to South Lane.

Currently, there are several services for dealing with mental health crises in Cottage Grove.

South Lane Mental Health, a key player in this project, has offered walk-in and call-in services since the 1990s and provides crisis lines and mobile responses to its clients.

The Cottage Grove Community Medical Center keeps a South Lane Mental Health crisis worker staffed in its emergency room, though in-person responses have been suspended since June 2021 due to staffing shortages.

CGPD also responds to crisis calls in the community and will often assist in transporting a person in crisis to an appropriate service.

Nonprofit services like Community Sharing and Family Relief Nursery provide aid as well.

Still, attendees of last month’s virtual meeting noted a laundry list of needs and strategies for the community.

One question posed to the group asked: If South Lane had sufficient access to behavioral health services, what would it look like and how could progress be measured?

Answers were numerous and included needs to address youth concerns, define the boundaries of the service, secure adequate funding, diminish the stigma around behavioral health and track progress from both the client and provider perspective.

A second question asked about the needs and barriers experienced locally in regards to planning for the project.

One salient point made on this was a great need for more mental health staff in the area as well as post-contact services which prevent crises from becoming cyclical events.

CGPD Chief Scott Shepherd said his department is strongly in favor of a program that could reduce officers dealing with mental health situations.

“We’d just like to pledge our continued support for this conversation,” he said, adding that about 1,050 calls for service with a mental health component have been made to the department this year. “I can’t say they’re all mental health ‘crises,’” he said, “But any percentage that could reduce the amount of officer time … would be beneficial to the community.”

Future public discussions will be held on the subject, though no dates have been announced.

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