Removing mental health patients from their communities and placing them into hospitals is oftentimes neither the most effective nor most efficient way to deal with the crises many individuals experience, according to local advocates.

It’s their contention that patients can be better assessed and will have better outcomes if early intervention takes place right in their home communities.

And with the region facing the imminent loss of psychiatric care beds at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, they say there is no better time than now to be organizing the region’s first mobile intervention crisis team.

The rapid-response unit — to be called the Mobile Crisis Assessment Team — is expected to be in place June 1.

It stitches together mental health programs run by Otsego, Delaware, Schoharie and Chenango counties, and will be coordinated by the Neighborhood Center in Utica, with funding for the crisis services coming from state government.

“This is a model that looks like it will work,” said Otsego County Director of Community Services Susan Matt. 

The team will include six full-time mental health therapists working each day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. They will be spread throughout the region, with each covering territories ranging from 20 to 30 miles in radius. There will also be a cadre of on-call professionals prepared to spring into action each night if their services are required, officials said.

The Neighborhood Center is now recruiting candidates for the various positions, Matt said.

“The goal is to provide the intervention when you start to have trouble,” she said. “What we’d like to do is get people in treatment earlier, and not have to wait for hospitalization.”

Mobile crisis teams are not new in the treatment field, but the approach has been used more in urban areas, as rural areas pose challenges, given the distance between those who need the service and those who provide it, advocates said.

“You have better outcomes when you see people in their natural environment,” said Sandra Soroka, the executive director of the Neighborhood Center and a former child protective services caseworker for Otsego County.

Matt said that about 140 people go to Basset each month for mental health services, while only about 40 contact the local crisis hotline set up for those with mental illness issues. 

“We’d like to see that reversed,” she said.

Harvey Rosenthal, the director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Support Services, said mobile assessment teams have a reputation for being very effective and help communities achieve reduced reliance on hospital psychiatric beds.

“The whole trend in health care is going to people, not waiting for people,” said Rosenthal. “If the goal is to provide real-time intervention and de-escalation, these teams are the way to go. “ 

Rosenthal pointed out he was not advocating for the elimination of hospital-based psychiatric services, but rather that they be supplemented by such teams.

“The teams can put out a lot of fires and prevent a lot of relapses,” he said.

 In some cases, he noted, a patient may simply need to be reminded to take his prescribed medications, a rapid remedy that would not require an evaluation at a hospital.

“Hospitals are increasingly being used as a last resort,” he said.

Matt said a stream of state funding for mental health crisis services will provide for the full $700,000 that will be needed to have the mobile team cover the four-county region.

The staff will be employees of the Neighborhood Center, she said.

Citing a national shortage of psychiatrists and therapists, Bassett has decided to close its 10-bed psychiatric unit for inpatients, but has not yet received final state approval for the move, officials said.

Matt said local mental health officials are hoping that when hospitalizations are required, patients can be taken to medical facilities in most cases by ambulance rather than by police vehicles.

Telephone hotline numbers for the Mobile Crisis Assessment Team will be publicized closer to the time that the organization is launched, she said.

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