Incident reports of suicide threats and welfare checks in local law reports are on the rise and law enforcement agencies have been working on new training methods to respond. In Itasca County, these reports are often referred to the Crisis Response Team, a group of individuals trained in crisis intervention with a passion for helping people at their lowest of lows.

Starting off this new year, the Itasca County Crisis Response Team (CRT) is looking to improve with personable, mobile services to connect people experiencing mental health breakdowns or crisis with a wealth of community services. They are calling it CRT2020.

This new approach comes after Grand Itasca Clinic and Hospital changed its way of diagnosing people with symptoms of mental illness earlier this month. In the past, when a person was admitted to the emergency room for displaying symptoms of crisis, the CRT would often meet them there for an assessment. Now, people in these situations are offered mental health services with a mental health professional via a teleprompter.

The CRT wants people to understand that they are still available to meet them whenever and wherever they are at in behavior, state-of-mind, location or hour of the day. For example, a person may not know how to identify their issues and feel overwhelmed or they may not know how to help a loved one or friend. They call 9-1-1 to get a willing officer to check on their well-being. Because the officer is not a trained mental health professional, they may suggest being evaluated at the local hospital. But, as Cre Larson, executive director of First Call for Help 2-1-1 and CRT explained, those individuals may not understand that they could be helped by a lower level of care than the ER.

“We know these clients,” said Larson. “We want them to know that they can call the CRT before the ER if they feel they’re not sick enough for the hospital.”

A call to the CRT means either the responders will come to you or you will be invited to come into the First Call office for an assessment.

“We want people to know we are fully-mobile,” explained Larson who says the team will go just about anywhere that is reasonably safe and acceptable for a meeting whether that is a school, a home, a parking lot, a fast-food restaurant, or elsewhere.

Once a team member connects with a client, they start the assessment, then work on a safety plan, placement or intervention - whatever is best for that person.

“The goal is to always keep people close to home,” continued Larson. “Itasca County is rich with mental health resources because of our strong NAMI (National Association on Mental Illness) chapter and Mental Health Council. The county is very forward-thinking, and aggressive when it comes to mental health.”

Through First Call for Help 2-1-1, the CRT is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to calls.

“We’re set up to offer assessments, find out what the trigger was and find the community resources to stabilize them,” said Larson who explained that they are also prepared to offer services to walk-ins who may not be sure what their symptoms are but just need to talk with someone in a comfortable setting.

Larson believes it’s about 50-50 the number of people who prefer to walk-in for an assessment or call a CRT member to come to them. She said the CRT will continue to refer the higher-risk individuals for screening at the hospital but they want to be “the boots on the ground,” to help people avoid hospitalization if it is not necessary.

“If a person has chemical dependency or depression issues, we can evaluate if mental health issues were a trigger and offer wrap-around services within the community help them,” explained Larson. “We will drive to you, meet you where you’re at.”

According to Larson, the CRT hopes that people will be more open to an assessment if they are seen in a place where they feel most comfortable. The whole goal is to reduce suicide and hospitalizations that are not necessary.

“We want to come to them or to a loved-one who calls,” Larson added.

The CRT has been trained alongside law enforcement for streamlined response for calls that come through 9-1-1. But, Larson wants people to also understand that they don’t have to be in the thick of a crisis to call CRT.

You could feel exhausted and burdened and unaware of how to work your way out of a big slump. Your son may be exhibiting unusual behavior and you may think it is mental health related. Your father may be addicted to alcohol and you want help on how to carry out an intervention.

“And everyone in between; we’ve seen everything,” said Larson who emphasized that people should never feel like their symptoms are not “bad enough” to seek CRT services.

“It could be something that is starting a trajectory to worse things and you want to stop that path,” she explained.

In her experience, Larson believes people, in general, prefer face-to-face meetings when it comes to mental health assessments versus a computer. This is a significant reason for CRT 2020 and its goal to be mobile and available 24/7.

As Tom Gaffney, who has been on the front line of assessments leading the CRT since 1999, explained how responders are much more able to identify nonverbal signs of distress when meeting with people in person. These may include smells, distractions, body movements and more.

“If a person is seeing hallucinations in the corner of the room, we can see that there is no one there. We can see if personal hygiene is lacking or if the person’s breath smells like alcohol - and that’s their trigger,” explained Gaffney. “With in-person assessments, we’re able to see, smell and feel what’s going on.”

Like Larson, Gaffney said, “Any person in crisis may not feel their crisis is not as intense as another’s.”

But crisis can mean many things - it could be anything from chemical dependency, homelessness and food insecurity to marital problems, bullying, a change in lifestyle, job loss and more.

Gaffney explained that the 24 staff on CRT are all trained in crisis response and intervention but they all come from varied backgrounds and have different day jobs. The CRT is their “moonlighting” career for all but three on the team.

“They are all extremely invested which is obvious in how much time and effort it takes for people to put in - after their regular 40-hour week job,” he said.

People also need to understand that the CRT will respond to them whether they have insurance or not.

“This team is your team,” said Larson. “If you don’t have insurance, you will not get a bill. This is an Itasca County service and always has been.”

Larson also emphasized that people may utilize the CRT as often as they need.

“Frequency and intensity doesn’t matter.”

In the past 10 years, Gaffney says they’ve seen a significant increase in calls for adolescents between the ages of 10 and 14. He believes social media has been powerful in altering emotions depending on how the person is using the media.

Larson said they’ve seen an 18% increase in crisis calls across all age groups in the past year. And it was another 18% increase in calls the previous year.

“We know this problem isn’t going away,” said Larson. “So we have to be sure people know of the resources if we’re going to make any kind of impact.”

“The one thing we live by is, ‘find the pain and instill hope,’” explained Gaffney.

Larson added, “We want to help people build a life worth living because we all deserve that and many times people don’t know how to do that.”

For more information or to request a CRT evaluation, call 218-326-8565.


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