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New van allows Columbia River Mental Health Services team to aid those in need along Fourth Plain
Columbian - 12/9/2023
Dec. 9—A Vancouver agency is offering an alternative to police response for people experiencing mental health crises along the Fourth Plain corridor.
In October, Columbia River Mental Health Services began operating its behavioral health response team in central Vancouver, generally along Fourth Plain Boulevard between Interstates 5 and 205. The team operates from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and is called when there's an urgent situation along the corridor due to mental health symptoms or substance use.
The program is similar to one in Eugene, Ore., that has received national acclaim. CAHOOTS is a 3-decade-old mobile team that helps people experiencing crises involving mental illness, homelessness and addiction.
Columbia River Mental Health Services' team is partially funded by federal funding, earmarked by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., through the annual Congressionally Directed Spending process. The rest of the funding is from private and public donations to Columbia River Mental Health Services, according to Chris Cone, the organization's chief marketing and development officer.
Businesses are frequent callers now that a daytime team exists, said Elizabeth Cochran, the agency's clinical director of child, family and community-based services.
To Get Help
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis along the Fourth Plain corridor, call Columbia River Mental Health Services' behavioral health response team at 360-993-3166.
When the six community support specialists trained in de-escalation arrive, sometimes they'll start off what might be an uncomfortable situation for someone by offering water, snacks or a blanket.
"It's about being able to make that human connection first, and then start assessing the situation," Cochran said. "We don't go right into problem-solving mode."
Then, the team starts having that difficult conversation about why the person is experiencing a crisis, said Ace Salu, a community service supervisor for the team.
Based on what the person says or does, the team kicks into action.
The team sometimes determines that a higher level of intervention is needed, such as police or emergency services. But the team can help most times by just being there with someone who is struggling.
"Sometimes, all they needed is somebody to talk to them. Sometimes, it is resource navigation. It could be risk assessment for self-harming," Cochran said.
Besides helping people in a moment of crisis, the team can serve as a sort of intervention in people's lives — showing them ways they can get help becoming housed or stopping drug use.
An important attribute of the team is that it meets people where they are instead of people having to seek out help, Salu said. Many of the people on the team have a history of trauma that helps them to relate to the people they are helping, he said.
"A lot of members on our team are trained that way to talk to people about what they're experiencing, what their problems are," Salu said. "They'll be able to kind of walk beside them."
Part of the team's goal, Cochran said, is to minimize the overuse of law enforcement and reduce the trauma that can be associated with law enforcement intervention when it's not necessary.
Encounters between law enforcement and people with mental illness have had deadly outcomes in the past.
In 2020, three Vancouver police officers fatally shot William Abbe, a homeless man diagnosed with schizophrenia, while responding to an assault between him and another man in central Vancouver. The year prior, two Vancouver police officers shot and killed Michael Eugene Pierce, a 29-year-old mentally ill homeless man brandishing realistic replica handguns.
Prosecutors found both shootings were justified, although the Vancouver City Council approved a $725,000 settlement in a 2021 lawsuit filed by Abbe's daughter.
Although these are not situations the mobile team would likely respond to because they involved possible weapons, many said the situations represent the need for de-escalation training.
"Sometimes, a law enforcement officer is exactly who you hope to see around a corner," Cochran said. "But when you're in distress and worried about your safety, that can be particularly threatening to people who've experienced trauma."
The team is starting off along the Fourth Plain corridor, an area with many service providers, because Columbia River Mental Health Services wants to begin with a small area before expanding the program to see what level of resources and staffing are necessary.
"Starting locally, starting small, really helps a brand new program be able to shape their skills," Cochran said.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis along the Fourth Plain corridor, call the team at 360-993-3166.
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