SALT LAKE CITY — Three mental health crisis response teams are part of a new Salt Lake County initiative to expedite help to people in distress and keep them from being sent to jail or involuntarily committed in hospitals.

Teams of specialists will drive to a person's home, job, school — even a street corner. "The intent of this is to go virtually anywhere," said Ross VanVranken, executive director of the University of Utah's Neuropsychiatric Institute.

"Unfortunately our jails have become our largest mental health institutions," Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon said when announcing the new plan for mental health outreach to a model that includes "On-the-fly attention, meaning they get the help right when and where they need it."

A new crisis line will take calls around-the-clock, seven days a week, from people in distress, or from their friends or family. Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams dispatched to help will include a licensed mental health professional and a Certified Peer Specialist — a person with their own experience as a mental health patient who has been trained by the state to help others in crisis.

Julie Hardle is one such peer specialist. She describes herself as in recovery from a serious mental illness, and someone who still uses mental health services. "A person in crisis can often relate best to someone who has been in a similar crisis," she said.

A peer specialist can also give mental health patients the assurance they can recover. "I'm living proof of that," Hardle said.

VanVranken said the U. institute currently takes 100 crisis calls a day and estimates the mobile teams will respond to 100 to 200 calls a month. He expects the mobile teams will be busy but that their intervention will cut down emergency room traffic and hostile interactions with police that lead to time in jail.

The next phase in the new mental health outreach program will be a 16-bed Recovery Support Center that will provide short-term observation and respite treatment as an alternative to hospitals or jail. That center is scheduled to open in June.

The support center is part of the outreach plan from OptumHealth, which manages the administration of the county's mental health services.

The program has a $2.3 million budget for the first year. Many of the people treated are likely to qualify for Medicare, with Medicare funds covering 60 percent to 65 percent of the costs of the program and the balance coming from the county, said Tim Whalen, mental health director in the county's Human Service Department.

Whalen said similar models in other states show the outreach approach is effective and saves money. "Everywhere we look there are cost savings." Much of the anticipated savings comes from follow-up the intervention teams will conduct to keep people out of the hospital/jail cycle.

Calls for service go directly to the new county crisis line, 801-587-3000. But Salt Lake City police detective Ron Bruno, who oversees crisis intervention for law enforcement, said he recognizes people are culturally acclimated to calling 911 for help. He said he is working to accomplish three-way calling capabilities so calls to 911 can bring in experts from the crisis line and calls to the crisis line can involve law enforcement, when needed.

He said law enforcement needs to be among the first responders if a violence or suicide threat is imminent. In other cases, the presence of law enforcement can escalate anxiety, and mental health specialists, including peer specialists, should be on the front line.

"We're always going to opt for what the safest thing is," VanVranken said.

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