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West Side Mental Health Groups Are Building A System To Stop People In Crisis From Being Needlessly Hospitalized

The system will have a range of mental health services, like a mobile crisis response team that can meet people where they're at to deescalate an emergency.

Mount Sinai Hospital.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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NORTH LAWNDALE — Health care providers on the West Side are teaming up to ensure nobody slips through the cracks when they are experiencing a mental health crisis.

The groups — including Habilitative Systems Inc, I AM ABLE Center for Family Development, Sinai Chicago and the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center — are building a crisis care system across the West Side funded by grants from the state’s Department of Human Services.

The system will have a range of programs and resources for dealing with mental health emergencies and to help prevent people experiencing a crisis from being arrested or hospitalized unnecessarily.

Each organization in the partnership will bring services to the area, like a mobile crisis unit that can meet people where they’re at and a trauma recovery room where a person in crisis can get peer support.

But the greatest advantage of the system is the higher degree of collaboration and communication between organizations in the network, something that has typically been absent in the traditional health care system, said Patricia Salgado, manager of the crisis care program at Sinai.

“What I’ve seen before is every agency working as their own island,” Salgado said. “It’s this shift that we are not in competition with one another. I don’t want to refer someone to the ER just because I want them to stay with Sinai.”

Providers often don’t communicate with one another, and it isn’t common to refer a patient to another health organization even if it would give the patient additional care options, Salgado said. But with the crisis care network, providers on the West Side will be attuned to the range of services in the area so they can coordinate with other health groups to make treatment as accessible as possible, Salgado said.

Without a network that can offer the appropriate care, people experiencing a mental health emergency often end up getting arrested or forcibly hospitalized by first responders, Salgado said.

“Coming to the ER is trauma itself. You are experiencing a mental health crisis, and every time you’re struggling, 911 is bringing you to the ER. In your eyes you don’t need to be hospitalized, you’re just saying you need help. … It just speaks to that gap in care,” Salgado said.

I AM ABLE is using the grant to create a peer support center where a person in crisis can decompress and get therapeutic guidance in a cozy, non-clinical setting.

“We want to give people an opportunity to have a safe place and people that are skilled to help deal with” crises, Vessel said.

The peer support service will give people in crisis more options so hospitalization isn’t the first and only course of action, said Carolyn Vessel, the organization’s CEO.

“Our people need options,” Vessel said. “If we don’t have it … we’re going to get you to a partner who has already been vetted … and we’ll report to each other.”

By offering mental health services in a less formal setting, I AM ABLE’s peer support can get around the stigma that stops many from seeking care and make it easier to deescalate a tense situation, Vessel said.

“You are more likely to listen to somebody about something they have experienced but have put things in place to begin to overcome it,” Vessel said.

The state grant will allow Sinai to develop a mobile crisis response team that can be an alternative to the typical emergency response. Sinai is working with Chicago police and the state to develop a system where mental health experts rather than police respond to emergency calls in some situations, Salgado said.

The mobile response teams will “assist them where they are and see if we can deescalate and avoid an emergency room trip,” Salgado said.

The teams will include clinicians and certified peer recovery support specialists, who have experience overcoming their own mental health challenges.

“That peer recovery support specialist is taking the lead to respond because they have been in that situation. They know what that person needs to hear or what they need at the time,” Salgado said.

Sinai is also ramping up its in-house crisis worker team and offering therapy services that can continue long after an initial crisis.

Habilitative Systems Inc. is using the state grant to expand its outpatient crisis programs and supervised residential group homes, which are designed to support people with serious mental health needs who lack housing stability, said CEO Donald Dew.

“We’re going to coordinate our efforts to ensure that nobody falls through the cracks and has to be unnecessarily institutionalized, incarcerated or disabled as a result of some type of crisis,” Dew said.

Habilitative Systems collaborates with the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center to run the Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center, a walk-up resource where anybody in need of mental health interventions can get treatment, get an assessment or be referred to resources.

The Westside Community Triage and Wellness Center was previously open 24/7, but budget cuts from the county in 2019 forced the mental health center to shorten to 12 hours daily.

Habilitative Systems and the Bobby E. Wright Comprehensive Behavioral Health Center are each using portions of the state crisis care grants to fund 24/7 services at the Westside Triage and Wellness Center so residents can once again have access to a mental health center at any time.

“Whether it’s a social determinant of health or a mental health-related issue or a substance use issue, we are able to help so nobody is turned away and there is no runaround,” said Diana Castillo, chief clinical officer at the Bobby E. Wright Center.

The Bobby E. Wright Center will also expand the mobile crisis response team it’s had since 2015, and it will offer additional services for victims of violence so they can have continued crisis support.

The significant investments made by the state into crisis care is encouraging, Castillo said, “but even with these resources now, we’re still very much underfunded.”

Crisis resources are absolutely necessary, Castillo said. But equally important are investments into the social conditions that can determine whether a person slides into a crisis in the first place, Castillo said. Without investments into things like housing, education and infrastructure, the environments that create trauma will continue to fuel the dire need for mental health programs on the West Side.

“How do we address trauma when people don’t have a place to live? How do we address trauma when people don’t have anything to eat?” Castillo said. “We need mental health services and we need housing. We need mental health resources and healthy food.”

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