Health

More Psychiatric Teams Now Ready for Emergency Calls

There were 23 teams.

But with an additional $1.6 million from the County for this fiscal year, the number will jump to 33 teams this month.

We’re talking about 33 Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams or PERT, which pairs a licensed mental health clinician with a Sheriff’s deputy or police officer.

Together, the pair responds to emergency calls where mental illness could be a factor. When a psychiatric crisis call comes in and law enforcement responds, the mental health clinician is right along the deputy or police officer in the squad car. Their goal is to compassionately de-escalate crises and reduce the number of incarcerations and hospitalizations resulting from those episodes.

In April, County Supervisors Dianne Jacob and Dave Roberts asked the Board of Supervisors to expand the PERT program and they unanimously agreed.

“One of our goals is to increase public safety by freeing up officers to respond to other calls while PERT teams handle mental health calls,” said Jacob. “This will result in more opportunities for people to be redirected to mental health services, rather than being hospitalized or arrested.”  

With the additional funding, five new teams were established in July and five more were created this month. The new teams will be assigned to areas with no coverage or jurisdictions where a higher presence is needed. PERT is a nonprofit agency, funded through the County Health and Human Services Agency and the County Public Safety Group and run by the Community Research Foundation.

“The program has been a great success because of the collaboration among law enforcement agencies and our mental health community,” said Roberts. “I am proud the Board supported that collaboration by approving more funding to help people who need it most.”

First established in 1996, PERT teams currently exist in in every law enforcement jurisdiction in the county. A network of programs and options for people with mental illness serves the region, and PERT units are uniquely positioned to connect people who come to the attention of law enforcement with the right help.

“The addition of the new teams is going to have a great impact. Our law enforcement partners are very excited,” said Dr. Mark Marvin, PERT director at the Community Research Foundation. “People are actually appreciative. Families feel comfortable calling the police and know that the officers and clinicians who respond are trained to de-escalate the situation.”

In 2014, local law enforcement authorities received about 21,500 PERT-related calls. The teams of trained professionals respond to incidents on the streets, people’s homes and anywhere else that a mental health crisis is occurring. When a PERT team is not available, 9-1-1 operators dispatch an officer who has been trained on PERT protocols.

“The majority of calls are from people or about people who need mental health services,” said Alfredo Aguirre, director of the Health and Human Service Agency’s Behavioral Health Services division.  “What was occurring before police and mental health professionals started working together was that people dealing with psychiatric crisis were handled as criminals, meaning that they were arrested or hospitalized.”

When a PERT team responds to a call, the clinician begins a dialogue with the individuals and tries to convince him or her to seek mental health services. However, in cases where law enforcement believes a person continues to be a risk to himself or others, the result might be involuntary detainment.

“The team approach has worked with great success,” said Aguirre adding that “the increasing number of psychiatric calls in recent years is primarily due to the fact that more people know help is available and are calling 9-1-1 for services for themselves or a loved one.”

Individuals experiencing mental health challenges can access services by calling the County’s 24-hour, multilingual Access and Crisis Line at (888) 724-7240. Resources are also available the It’s Up to Us website.

 

José A. Álvarez is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact