Fairbanks City Hall

The Patrick B. Cole City Hall is seen Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in downtown Fairbanks. Caitlin Miller/News-Miner

The City of Fairbanks accepted state funding of $125,000 to build a mobile crisis response team this year, as a part of a bigger long-term initiative to reimagine assistance to people with substance abuse and mental health issues in Fairbanks and across the state.

The project is still at the planning stage, but by the end of August, a team of five to ten behavioral health specialists will assist emergency responders on calls involving substance abuse issues, providing people in crisis with mental support and appropriate resources, said Linda Setterberg, the reentry services director at Bridge, the organization responsible for creating that team.

In short, whenever there is a call involving things like overdose, withdrawals, family complications or any type of crisis involving a drug, staff from the city Police and Fire departments will respond to it like they normally do, and they will call the mobile crisis response team who will meet them at the spot when it’s safe, Setterberg explained. The specialists will talk with the person in crisis and the family and connect them with the available resources, whether that is clinical help, substance abuse treatment, job search or housing assistance.

“The idea is, sometimes people just needed someone to go alongside them,” Setterberg said. “At that crisis moment, you really open up for help.”

To make this happen, the city received a grant of $125,000 for 2021, or $250,000 for two years, from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, which it will distribute to Bridge. Additional funding might come in the coming months from Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority when the planning for the project is more detailed, said Allison Biastock, the chief communications officer for the Trust.

When it comes to staffing the mobile crisis response team, Bridge already has seven employees who do this type of work and would want to hire at least four more people to make sure the team can work 24/7.

All existing Bridge employees have a personal story of some sort of adversity —such as history of substance abuse, homelessness or mental health issues — and this allows them to respond to their clients with more empathy and often know the struggle they go through from the inside, Setterberg said.

“People who have lived the traumatic experience are just really good at talking about paths to recovery,” she said.

Bridge employees are also Peer Support specialists, and to expand the team, Bridge staff considers inviting people who went through a Peer Support Training now open through Alaska Behavioral Health. Plus, they want to provide ongoing mobile crisis training for the whole team and are now developing the curriculum for it.

Having the crisis response team can make it easier for people in need to ask for help.

“When police bring you to the hospital, it can bring anxiety,” said Setterberg who was a nurse by trade for 25 years. On the other side, the presence of someone supporting can calm down the person in crisis, she explained.

Connecting people to services and following up with them after the call is another unique feature of the mobile crisis response team.

“It’s not just what happens at the time of the call; it’s also the follow up,” Setterber said. “Getting someone out of a crisis and into the treatment is a process.”

While responding to substance abuse crisis calls is very important to the Fairbanks area, in the future, the crisis response team would deal with any type of mental health crisis situations.

Right now, the Bridge and other organizations involved are working on a more specific plan, but the goal is to have the team ready for work by August, Setterber said.

The need for mobile crisis response team

Before the team is ready, the police and fire staff are continuing to respond to crisis situations, and the Fairbanks Emergency Communication Center will keep dispatching them.

In 2020, the Fairbanks Police Department responded to 211 calls involving mental disorders, 216 calls involving suicidal people and 82 calls involving issues with drugs, the dispatch manager Kristi Meredith wrote in an email to the News-Miner. Among the Emergency Medical Services calls for the area, 184 involved overdose or poisoning and 354 calls with abnormal or suicidal behaviors.

Changing the mental health care approach as a whole

Creating a mobile crisis response team is only the first stepping stone in building a more comprehensive mobile crisis response team and in changing the way the city — and the state — treat substance abuse and mental illness overall.

In the future, crisis calls would not go through law enforcement or the fire department, Setterber said. Instead, the team would use the Alaska Careline to provide the callline assistance, which would allow for a response more appropriate to the situation and potentially less incarcerations, Setterberg said.

Further even, the city wants to implement Crisis Now, a national model for responding to crisis without overusing law enforcement. Besides having a 24/7 mobile crisis team and call centers, the model also involves facilities for stabilization and longer term care.

“No one in Fairbanks stepped up to do that part yet,” Setterberg said, “But that’s what is necessary to make the response more comprehensive.”

On the state level, the Mental Health Trust wants to implement components of the Crisis Now model over the next year, with the help of the State Department of Health and Social Services and a large number of partners, including healthcare providers, first responders and nonprofits, said Allison Biastock, the chief communications officer for the Trust.

“Improving Alaska’s behavioral health crisis response system has been identified by the Trust as a key priority,” Biastock said. “We anticipate that the Trust will act as a catalytic funder for local efforts as we continue to help launch Crisis Now services to improve the continuum of psychiatric care.”

Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.