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Helena's Mobile Crisis Response Team working to 'decriminalize' mental health response

Independent Record - 9/8/2022

Sep. 8—Need help?

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

St. Peter's Health Mobile Crisis Response Team (MCRT) has been making strides in the Helena community, responding to about 650 mental health emergency calls since it was created in November 2020.

"There's multiple reasons we're important. One of the things we've done is we've helped educate our law enforcement on mental health and how to interact with mental health," said Jadin VanSteenvort, behavioral health specialist and member of the MCRT. "Our law enforcement has always been really good about that, but they've gotten way better in these last two years since we started this program. We all made sure after wherever we go and whatever we do, we talk with the officers about what's going on and what we're looking at. We're not ever expecting (law enforcement) to do our job, but the more they know about what they're looking for, the more they know when to call us in."

MCRT partners with officers and deputies, and the team is called in when needed after a location is secured by first responders. VanSteenvort noted how they can be called for assistance by EMTs, the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff's Office, the Helena Police Department and the East Helena Police Department.

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton noted the impact MCRT has had on his department.

"Peace officers are not licensed psychologists. There's an issue of mental health emergencies or people in crisis rising in our state," said Dutton. "The crisis response team improves the quality of life for people with mental illness and for peace officers."

Dutton noted the sheriff's office receives a crisis intervention team (CIT) class, which is a 40-hour course. The Helena Police Department (HPD) goes through this course as well, said HPD Lt. Randy Ranalli. This course focuses mainly on de-escalation. There are also smaller courses related to that subject that law enforcement can take.

"There was something missing before MCRT," said Dutton. "The system of mental health care continuum shows that the emergency room and jail are the worst places for people struggling with mental health crises. I have high praise for the emergency room, but it is the most expensive option."

MCRT is working to destigmatize the perception around mental health care and receiving help in general.

"One of the main focuses of the mobile crisis unit is that we are able to assist and help the patient in the community, preventing the patient from coming to the hospital if it is not really necessary," said Gianluca Piscarelli, director of behavioral health at St. Peter's Health. "At the same time, we're trying to decriminalize mental health so the stigma of having a person seen as a criminal because law enforcement is responding to the call even though they are not a criminal. It's just mental health, so having the mobile crisis unit helping, preventing them from getting in the police car and preventing them from being escorted to the hospital is our main goal."

The MCRT has three fully operational members and another starting this month.

"We go through a month of training where we do hospital training for a week, and then three weeks of shadowing, ride-alongs and help in the emergency room," said VanSteenvort.

The MCRT works in 12-hour shifts with half an hour overlaps to brief the new shift member. The team will soon have two members splitting their weekly shifts for nights and two members splitting their weekly shifts for days.

No two days are alike on their shifts. Some days they're helping people find housing. Some days they're in the heart of a mental health crisis.

"I've been called to a scene a few times where people are survivors of someone who has died by suicide, and I've sat with the survivors for as long as they need — two, three, four hours at times," said VanSteenvort. "I help that person process what they just went through. In that situation, I know the fact that (CRT) was there and present and helped that person take a really bad day, and it's traumatic, but making it not as lasting traumatic."

Helena's MCRT is funded by a $400,000Lewis and Clark County grant, according to previous KTVH reporting. At the end of the year, the grant funds will be up.

"We will for sure be funded till the end of the year, and then of course, we are open to the fund being renewed, but it is a little bit uncertain. We won't know until December," said Piscarelli. "(Needing funding) isn't an anomaly. Every program funded by grants is renewable, but it will need some discussion."

While the future of the program is uncertain, St. Peter's Health is looking for ways to keep this program around in the Helena community.

"We are proud to provide this important service in response to a critical community need, and we continue to seek sustainable funding sources for the program," said Katie Gallagher, a spokesperson for St. Peter's Health.

St. Peter's isn't the only one hoping the MCRT program is sustained.

"We need more mental health funding. I think CRT is a blessing, and I hope it continues," said Dutton.

"Mental health is a very important and very difficult topic to deal with Montana being rural and smaller with not as many resources," said Ranalli. "The impact (of MCRT) on a numbers basis I don't know, but the impact of the program has been within the community and for our department getting people lifelines and freeing up our officers to handle other types of calls for services. It is an important service. It takes a community to support mental health."

To learn more about St. Peter's Health Mobile Crisis Response Team, go to and search "Mobile Crisis Response Team St. Peter's Health."

"Our focus has really been to be able to provide the right type of mental health care at the right place and at the right time," said Gallagher. "The mobile crisis response team is one piece of the puzzle when you look at the entire spectrum of mental health care at St. Pete's."

Gallagher went on to list other pieces of the puzzle that create the full picture of St. Peter's mental health care services. At the preventive stage, she said primary care offices use depression screening tools called PHQ9s. There are behavioral health professionals located in the building of the primary care center for people who do score high on a PHQ9. There's also an out-patient psychiatry and psychology department and an in-patient Behavioral Health Unit (BHU).

"It's OK to ask for help when you need help because everyone has those days when they need a little extra," said VanSteenvort. "(MCRT) is happy to facilitate talking to and connecting people to therapists in the community, so it doesn't have to be a huge crisis for us to help people."

Megan Michelotti can be reached at


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