What happens if someone in Washtenaw County is experiencing a mental health crisis, but just needs a kind word and a safe place to take a nap? In the past, those people would often end up interacting with police officers or being admitted to a locked psychiatric unit, but a new county initiative aims to change that.
A new crisis observation and assessment center opened in Ypsilanti last summer after the passage of Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage. Millage funds were used to renovate a county-owned building at 750 Towner St. — just a few doors down from the main Washtenaw County Community Mental Health building on Towner. Millage funds were also used to hire and train a medical assistant and peer support specialists who will service the location 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The center could normally house five clients, but because of COVID-19 restrictions, beds are currently limited to three.
CARES Program Coordinator Melisa Tasker.
Melisa Tasker is the program coordinator for the county's CARES team
, made up of mental health professionals, peer support specialists, case managers, nurses, and other health professionals who provide short-term mental health stabilization services. Tasker notes that the crisis observation and assessment center is not a walk-in or drop-off location. The CARES team, a local hospital, or a public safety officer can refer people in crisis to the center.
"It's really a tool of our 24-hour local crisis team. They can bring people there instead of a hospital," Tasker says. "Sometimes someone doesn't need to be admitted to a locked unit but does need observation and a safe place to stay."
Peer Support Specialist Scott Leeman says clients love the center, which aims for a home-like feeling with comfortable furniture, art on the walls, a massage chair, and opportunities to get a snack, do laundry, or take a nap.
"We bring them to a safe place to stay for the day. They can do laundry if they need to, and clinicians will meet with them and get them connected to outpatient care," Tasker says. "They create a safety plan while they're there and figure out next steps."
Tasker says that much of 2018 was spent having community conversations on how to use the millage money, and those surveyed repeatedly asked for "a crisis center for folks who needed extra care to go to that wasn't jail or a hospital," Tasker says.
Tasker says the crisis team was frustrated with the waitlists of up to six months for mental health services in the county. That often meant that even after the team had stabilized a client, the client might go back into a crisis before they could be connected with appropriate supportive services. However, she notes, there's no waitlist at the crisis observation and assessment center.
The center has only been operating a little over a year, but Tasker says staff have already seen "a lot of great outcomes."
"A lot of people come there in a crisis, and they're able to get stable and go home," she says.
Tasker says the peer support specialists are key players in the center's team. They're state certified but also have real-life experience with substance use disorder and mental health issues.
CARES Peer Support Specialist Scott Leeman.
Leeman is one of the peer support specialists who work with clients at the crisis center. He began his role there just weeks before the first COVID-19 restrictions went into place. After going out on a few runs to help de-escalate a mental health crisis, he says he wishes he'd had access to peer support back when he was having his own issues with substance use.
"I was revived with Narcan seven times, mostly here around Washtenaw County," Leeman says.
Luckily, he was able to connect with mentors in the local recovery community who understood his struggles. Today, those past experiences help him relate to clients.
"We're trying to find people who don't need to be in the emergency room or in jail, people like myself who might only need a place to be for a little while that's safe," he says. "One of the greatest feelings of achievement at this job is helping people get to the right place. That's what we do. They come here to figure out where they need to be."
Peer Support Specialist Alisa Mapp says she and other CARES staff are "very caring, supportive, and encouraging to the clients no matter what's going on in their lives."
"This program is definitely needed in the community," she says.
Tasker says peer support specialists' role is to "build engagement, rapport, and trust with individuals, some of which have historically not had trust in our system."
"A lot of people have been traumatized by [those who are supposed to be] helpers," Tasker says. "The peers do a great job of meeting people where they're at."
CARES Peer Support Specialist Tamera Lewis.
Peer Support Specialist Tamera Lewis says it's her job to meet people where they're at, both figuratively and literally.
"Sometimes, you meet them at a shelter or a bus stop or outside a party store," she says. "You might have to sit on the ground with them just to let them know you're equal, you're not above them. Sometimes, they just need a kind word and to know they're being heard."
Lewis says she believes the millage money is being used effectively and that the crisis center is "a great thing."
"[That's] not just because I work here, but it's just good to know there's another extra resource to help the people where we live," she says. "I'm passionate about helping people where I live. This is a place that can offer hope."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.