Someone you love is having a breakdown. They could hurt themselves. Who do you call?
If 911 leaps to mind, you’ll likely get a visit in a few minutes — from police, whose training includes behavioral health but is focused more on addressing criminality.
If you can remember 1-888-796-8226 (or 1-888-7-YOU-CAN), you’ll get a mental health professional from resolve Crisis Services, a 13-year-old unit of UPMC hired by Allegheny County to handle behavioral incidents. Help might arrive in half an hour.
Those different digits — the phone numbers and the response times — may be two reasons why social services have taken a back seat to public safety in handling mental health crises, occasionally with tragic and expensive results. Though resolve stands ready for telephone consults, walk-in visits, overnight treatment and mobile teams, its phone number just isn’t as memorable, and its staff doesn’t always zip to the scene.
As local leaders have joined a national search for alternatives to the police-dominated handling of behavioral crises, resolve’s leaders press the case that their 150-clinician team can be part, though not all, of the solution. A two-month PublicSource exploration of resolve — including conversations with clients, analysis of quarterly reports and interviews with officials — revealed strengths and shortcomings at the agency, and showed why shifting duties from police to social services won’t be easy.
- People who have interacted with both resolve and police said that in a behavioral health crisis, they prefer the mental health pros, not armed officers.
- 911 and police don’t regularly refer behavioral health calls to resolve.
- The gap between police response time and resolve’s response time complicates efforts to increase the social service’s role in handling crises.
- With a thrifty mission statement that limits its budget, resolve may struggle to improve response times which occasionally range up to several hours.
“We provide quality services in some of the most bizarre and extraordinary situations,” said Liz Sysak, resolve’s senior director of clinical services. Saying she’s “incredibly proud” of resolve, she added that, “when we show up, we do great work. But yes, there’s some limitations to us showing up.”
‘They didn’t mention resolve’
When Amanda Papa was grappling with post-miscarriage depression and anxiety in early 2018, neither she, nor her family, knew about resolve.
On May 30, 2018, her father, Michael Papa, called 911 to seek emergency help for Papa, who said in a recent interview that she had been cutting herself and expressing suicidal thoughts.
Coraopolis police officers arrived at her home.
Though Papa’s parents and her husband Garret Wassermann had expected an ambulance and asked the officers to help them to involuntarily commit Papa to a hospital, the officers instead placed her under arrest.
“Then the police took me, and that was it,” Papa said….