This article is part of a series about mental health in Washtenaw County. It is made possible with funding from Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness
(NAMI), one in five American adults experience some form of mental illness each year
. Fortunately, Washtenaw County Community Mental Health
(WCCMH) not only has a 24/7 mental health hotline, but also a mobile crisis team working around the clock to ensure the health and safety of residents with urgent mental health needs.
Any Washtenaw County resident can call (734) 544-3050 to be connected with members of WCCMH’s crisis team, headed by program administrator Melisa Tasker. Tasker says the crisis team has seen an "overall increase" in calls over the past few years, but that increase in call volume may be due to WCCMH being more visible in the community.
"We’ve been in the community more, marketing our number, providing a lot of services, increasing our staff," says Tasker.
The Washtenaw County Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage, approved by county voters in 2018, allowed the crisis team to expand its staff and begin providing substance use screening and provider referrals for residents on Medicaid.
One aspect of the crisis team is the staff’s work to keep emergency situations from escalating, only involving law enforcement when the caller’s immediate safety is in danger.
"In general, we know that law enforcement presence adds some uneasiness and potential trauma, and we want to avoid it when we can," Tasker says.
Washtenaw County Community Mental Health Program Administrator Melisa Tasker.
According to the Washington Post’s database of fatal police shootings
, one in five victims killed by police in the United States were experiencing an acute mental health crisis.
"Any time, no matter the circumstance, you involve a uniformed armed officer, it escalates the situation no matter what," says Tasker. But in the instances when the crisis team does need to involve law enforcement, Tasker also says that the officers CMH works with are "fantastic at deescalating."
Since 2021, Behavioral Health Emergency Partnership training has been implemented throughout Michigan to train law enforcement officers and behavioral health first responders on assessing and de-escalating mental health crisis situations.
"Social workers going to a home to de-escalate, we aren’t really looking at all the things that could hurt us, and our officers are," says Tasker. "Having that collaboration has been and continues to be really helpful at keeping everyone safe. [Law enforcement officers] bear that burden of keeping everyone safe. They keep an eye out for us."
Crisis team members are supervised by Nicole Muraca and Kelley N. Van Gemert, with each supervisor overseeing around 14 staff members.
"I really love to problem solve," Muraca says. "That’s really a lot of what this job is: understanding someone in the moment, and problem solving quickly what the best space is for them, and filling the gap of support ... that they just don’t have in the midst of that crisis."
Washtenaw County Community Mental Health Crisis Team Supervisor Nicole Muraca.
With the crisis center receiving over 8,000 calls in September of this year, Muraca also fills gaps for the crisis team, providing monthly check-ins for the staff she directly oversees, answering phone calls alongside the staff, and doing community outreach.
"There are days when we get a couple of calls but they’re just routine follow-up, and other days when we have so many requests we have to prioritize what is most client-centered to do," she explains. "There isn’t really a typical day."
The admin work Muraca and Van Gemert take on can also involve disagreements between crisis team staff and community partners like hospital staff and law enforcement. Decisions on whether a patient should be hospitalized or held at a police station are difficult and potentially expensive to both the patient and the county, making the crisis team’s work all the more important.
"We try to come to a compromise that is safest for the client," Muraca says. "... It’s a tough space to be in and a fine line to walk, but the team is really good at understanding those factors and working with our supports to come up with the best plan."
Both Tasker and Muraca note that the crisis team more often than not sees clients on their worst days. While the team follows up with clients after their crisis has subsided, the work can take a toll on staff's mental health. Crisis team member Jonathan Allen shares that his experience in social work helped him realize the importance of prioritizing his own mental health.
"Any of us can find ourselves in a state of crisis at any point," he explains. "I think that the way our team is set up, it allows you to take that time for yourself and recuperate and make sure that you’re well."
Washtenaw County Community Mental Health crisis team member Jonathan Allen.
In social work, it can be difficult to not take the work home at the end of a shift, but for Allen, it’s easier to leave work at work with his coworkers around. The crisis team works on shifts, meaning that if a staff member is in the middle of a call and has to leave, another staff member will take over and continue helping the client on the line.
"When I leave, someone is there to pick up where I left off," Allen says. "I’ve had jobs where I was constantly on call. The crisis team has been great. I can turn my work cell phone off, go home, and just be a dad and a husband."
While the work may not always be easy, Tasker and her staff agree that there are good days alongside the hard ones. For every call the team receives to assist a Washtenaw County resident in crisis, there’s a follow-up call to someone who called a week ago to see how their treatment is going.
"We have peer support specialists in CMH and on our team to remind us what recovery can look like, what success looks like," Tasker says. "People can have the worst day with law enforcement or in the hospital, and a year later be a completely different person. It’s nice to see that different perspective."
Tasker describes social workers as the "behind-the-scene, unsung heroes of a lot of success stories." She says crisis team staffers are professionals with "amazing" skills and passion.
"I truly feel like I was built for this type of work," says Muraca. "I’m so fascinated by the human brain and how that affects our behavior. That interest fuels my passion for the people that we work with."
The CMH crisis team can be reached at (734) 544-3050 24/7 for crisis planning, stabilization and support, as well as information regarding mental health resources. For more information about the team and all of the services it provides, visit the CMH county website
Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
All photos by Doug Coombe.