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New youth mobile crisis unit is 'at the ready'

Lindsay Cutinella works in her office at Woodland Centers. Cutinella is part of the Youth Mobile Crisis at the center. (Tribune photo by Bill Zimmer)

WILLMAR -- A team of mental health practitioners is making on-site house calls to help families with children who are experiencing a mental health crisis.

The "youth mobile crisis unit" was started in mid-August by the Woodland Centers. It's available free of charge to people in the six-county area of Kandiyohi, Chippewa, Renville, Meeker, Swift and Lac qui Parle counties.

Funded with a $230,000 grant from the Department of Human Services, the program is designed to be an alternative to taking youth to a residential crisis center, said Lindsay Cu-tinella, coordinator for the mobile unit.

"It is very exciting," she said.

The new program has had a slow start with less than a half-dozen calls so far, said Dr. Gene Bonynge, director of the Woodland Centers in Willmar. He's hoping to "get the word around" so that the service can be used and families can receive help.

The service is available from noon until 8 p.m., Monday through Friday.

It can be accessed by calling the Woodland Centers crisis hotline at 320-231-9158 or 1-800-992-1716.

The scenarios for when and why the mobile crisis unit would be used vary as much as the people it's designed to help.

It could involve a "flare-up" with a youth who has a history of mental illness, said Bonynge. Or it could be a first-time incident when a child is demonstrating increased depression or acute out-of-control behavior that could result in harm to self or others.

The mobile unit will go to homes or a store parking lot -- wherever the crisis is happening, Cutinella said.

The team is to be "at the ready to go into the community" and "attend to the crisis at hand," Bonynge said. The program is targeted for youth 18 years of age and under, he said.

When the team gets the call, a brief screening will be conducted over the phone to determine if a crisis situation exists and to determine an appropriate response.

On a scale of one to 10, with one being "sleeping" and 10 being "completely out of control," Cutinella said the crisis team would typically respond to cases in the 5 to 8 range.

Situations that are more extreme could present safety concerns to the practitioners and low-end situations, such as a child "just refusing to eat their vegetables," wouldn't warrant intervention, she said. But even then, she said, families will be given resources to get the help they need.

Before the two-person team gets in their vehicles, they will review the details with a mental health professional to get the OK to respond.

Typically, the calls for services come from parents or guardians who need immediate help but do not want their child to go to a residential crisis center. The mobile team allows intervention and stabilization to happen without the child leaving home, Cutinella said.

The team's first response is to have a face-to-face assessment and "de-escalate" the situation, Cutinella said. They will then "come up with an action plan," which could include referrals and other resources.

In some cases, however, parents may opt to take their child to a crisis center even after the mobile team has arrived.

There are times when a crisis bed "may still be needed," Bonynge said, but the mobile crisis team could negate the need for hospitalization in some circumstances.

The mobile crisis team cannot physically restrain a child, cannot administer medications and cannot provide transportation to a crisis hospital, Cutinella said.

Law enforcement officers often get calls from parents who are trying to deal with out-of-control children. Bonynge said the mobile crisis team isn't meant to take the place of law enforcement but could work in conjunction with law enforcement if there's parental consent for the service. Hospitals can also make referrals to the mobile crisis unit.

Woodland Centers is in the process of negotiating with schools to allow the mobile crisis unit to come onto school property.

Bonynge said services provided by the youth mobile crisis unit are free, but Woodland Centers does bill third-party payers with whom it has contracts for services.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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