Help Is On the Way

By: Danielle Sampsell and Amber Iuni

UPMC Altoona’s Mobile Crisis Unit hits the road in Blair County to deliver critical mental health care, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

In today’s world, the popular way to provide service is to personalize the delivery of the product. Service providers want to meet people where they are, when it’s convenient for them. Whether it’s food, personal training, nail and massage appointments, or heath care, it’s all about getting the services in the hands of those who need it, anywhere, at any time.

UPMC is always working to find optimal solutions to providing personalized health care options to its communities. With the implementation and use of telemedicine, the UPMC AnywhereCare app, and MyUPMC, patients can receive immediate access to services and providers within just a few minutes and clicks. When it comes to access to behavioral health services, that immediate response and action remains a top priority. This is a fact across UPMC.

Taking a closer look at Blair County

UPMC Altoona’s Mobile Crisis Team sets the bar high for managing behavioral health crises in timely manner, where and when community members need it most.

“The principle is we want to meet people where they are,” said Jacque Harpster, supervisor, Behavioral Health, UPMC Altoona. “We talk with the individual to find out what’s going on, and do our best to personalize a treatment plan, figure out what they need most, and get them connected to the best care options.”

The mobile crisis unit does exactly what you’d think – they receive calls for help during a time of crisis and travel to assist those in need of mental health services when requested.

“We respond to crises in the community such as police calls, deaths, and suicides,” said Dan Stover, crisis counselor, UPMC Altoona. “We meet with family members and patients in these scenarios and conduct a CISM — or critical incident stress management — to provide support, resources, and mobile crisis assessments anywhere in Blair County, 24/7.”

When the crisis counselors meet patients in their homes especially, they’re able to see how they’re living and caring for themselves. Describing their symptoms of depression, or the type of mental health crisis they are facing, only goes so far. Seeing and experiencing the patient’s surroundings adds an extra layer to the treatment the crisis team can provide and recommend.

Immersed in the patient’s space, crisis counselors get an entirely different perspective, in terms of what other triggers might be adding to the problem. Is the refrigerator stocked with nutritious foods, or are candy and soda lining the shelves? Does the home seem well cared for, or has the clutter piled up to cause anxiety? Are family members chiming in about symptoms the patient hasn’t verbalized? These observations are extremely helpful for the crisis counselors to properly and thoroughly assess the situation and recommend a course of action.

Getting help where you need it remains the key

Some of their most frequented intervention locations are local schools. Whether it’s a teacher, school counselor, fellow classmate, or the student themselves who makes the call for help, the mobile crisis team visits schools to meet with struggling students every week during the school year.

“We may receive a report that a student has expressed suicidal thoughts. In that instance, we would send a crisis clinician to the school to meet with the student and do a full mental health assessment,” said Jacque. “From that, we determine if they need to be admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit, or if outpatient care would be the better route. We then do extensive follow-up to ensure they are connected to services.”

In addition to frequenting Blair County schools, local law enforcement and the county’s three hospitals also call upon the UPMC Altoona Mobile Crisis Team for their mental health services. The team is called by law enforcement any time they encounter a domestic dispute where mental health problems are involved.

The mobile team can also provide its expertise within the walls of UPMC Altoona. When patients are found to have behavioral health needs in the emergency department, but are not admitted to the hospital, the crisis team can still meet with them in the ED to review options and be an advocate for their care once they leave the hospital.

In addition, the mobile team helps with patients facing chronic or severe mental illness. Crisis counselors check in on these patients to help them remain in their homes and ensure they are getting the treatment they need and sticking to their regimen.

The mobile team at UPMC Altoona is an extension of the Community Crisis Center, and anyone in Blair County can request services. While the team has been in place for years now, the program expanded significantly in April 2018.

With the expansion came additional resources and a higher level of preparedness. Now, crisis counselors no longer use their own vehicles. The team has two designated mobile unit vehicles, and more employees to help manage the growth.

Altoona’s Mobile Crisis Team is a prime example of how UPMC is going above and beyond to help communities receive the health care they need, where and when they need it.