One minute they might be sitting down with a teen in West Valley City who has a bad case of the holiday blues and says she doesn’t want to live anymore. Later, they may be called downtown to assess how to help a businessman who has gone off his meds or to Draper to visit with a grandmother struggling to keep her grip on reality.
The University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI) Mobile Crisis Outreach Team is always on-the-go 24/7, meeting people in homes, schools, shelters, private therapy offices, workplaces, clinics, parks, stressful family Christmas parties — practically anywhere in Salt Lake County where someone is in the midst of a mental health crisis.
"We get to do the right thing for everybody in the community," said Don Fennimore, LPC, a crisis intervention specialist at University of Utah Health and director of the mobile unit, a free service offered in partnership with Salt Lake County and OptumHealth. "It doesn't matter if they have the best funding in the world or they have no insurance at all. We just go out and solve problems."
Often, calls to the UNI CrisisLine (801-587-3000) — which is staffed by licensed mental health professionals who can deploy the mobile team — will come from a worried husband, daughter or brother who doesn't know where to turn when a family member is expressing suicidal thoughts or intentions. Appointments with psychiatrists aren't typically available on a whim, so the fast-acting response team provides a safety net to ensure no one need endure an acute mental health crisis alone.
The team works in pairs: a licensed clinician with the expertise to assess a patient in crisis and a certified peer specialist who may have been in a similar situation and can relate. The two may spend just a few minutes or up to a few hours evaluating how to help.
"The first thing we'll do is try to get the person settled down, de-escalate the situation," Fennimore said. "Our goal is to make the person comfortable talking with us."
Being invited into a space where an individual feels at ease — perhaps on a living room couch or around a kitchen table — is a unique opportunity that frequently provides clues about what is really going on that may not be apparent in a sterile ER.
"Sometimes what we do is part detective work," said Fennimore of interpreting the problem and determining the best action plan, whether that means pointing an individual toward mental health resources, substance abuse counseling or even recommending a trip to the ER, which only occurs in about 5 percent of visits.
"We're not there to hospitalize people," Fennimore said. "We're there to solve the crisis, and if at all possible, keep people in place and give them the resources to get through this."
In certain cases, Fennimore and his colleagues may advise a person to go to the UNI Receiving Center where patients can stay in a safe, secure environment for up to 23 hours.
Stationed at three different locations throughout Salt Lake County, the UNI Mobile Crisis Outreach Team generally goes on about 300 calls each month. They don't do cold calls, so if a mother says she believes her son is in trouble, a crisis specialist will ask, "Can you meet us there?"
While it may appear that the mobile team enters a lot of dangerous situations, there hasn't been an incident since the program began three and a half years ago, Fennimore said.
In addition to visiting a person, clinicians will often do other research to figure out a treatment approach, such as interviewing family members. The day after a meeting with an individual, the clinician will follow-up with a call the individual to make sure he or she is out of crisis mode.
Simply receiving a visit can leave a person with a sense of relief, Fennimore said.
Plus, he adds: "If they need us, they always know in the future they can call us out again."
Are you struggling but don't feel your problem is severe enough to call the CrisisLine? The UNI Warm Line (801-587-1055) is available daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. to Salt Lake County residents seeking support, engagement and encouragement. Certified peer specialists empower callers to resolve problems by fostering hope, dignity and self-respect in an environment free of judgment.