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Mobile crisis response comes to south suburban Matteson to aid those in distress who don’t want to call police

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 11/28/2022 Darcel Rockett, Chicago Tribune
Shekinah Smith, center, of the National Youth Advocate Program, participates in a “trunk or treat” Halloween event in Robbins on Oct. 31, 2022, where community members loaded their car trunks with holiday treats for children. Smith also distributed flyers with information about NYAP’s mobile crisis response effort. © Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS Shekinah Smith, center, of the National Youth Advocate Program, participates in a “trunk or treat” Halloween event in Robbins on Oct. 31, 2022, where community members loaded their car trunks with holiday treats for children. Smith also distributed flyers with information about NYAP’s mobile crisis response effort.

With a degree in criminal justice and a minor in psychology, Camry Moore, 23, wanted a job experience that she saw as different but still within her wheelhouse. She applied for a position with the National Youth Advocate Program’s Mobile Crisis Response Team in Matteson and got it. She’s been serving as a crisis intervention specialist with the south suburban crisis call center since May — taking calls from people ages 5 and older who need immediate help and intervention with trauma-related crises such as substance abuse, mental health and suicidal ideation.

“The easiest calls are from people that just want to vent,” Moore said. “Someone may have just had a death or something and they don’t know what to do, or their child is acting out. The harder ones deal with suicide, because some people are right at that point where they’re like ‘I’m gonna do it now’ and you want to make sure you’re guiding them away. You don’t want to steer them wrong, say the wrong thing and trigger them to commit it.”

For Moore, helping people in their time of need and giving words of encouragement was the impetus for becoming a staff member with the call center at the Matteson site. Founded in 1978, the National Youth Advocate Program is a private, nonprofit community-based organization that provides dozens of services for youths and families in 10 states, including Illinois — services like mobile crisis response.

People in need can call 833-8-CRISIS and reach a staffer who will identify, assess and seek to stabilize individuals in the short term by phone or in person to prevent unnecessary hospitalization, incarceration or displacement. According to Jataeva Arnold, Matteson’s crisis care therapist and program manager, such interventions reduce the immediate risk of danger to the client, their families and communities.

“The crisis hotline is to be that in-between,” Arnold said. So instead of calling 911 for help, people can contact the mobile response team so they can try to de-escalate a situation.

“Some people call because they may be having problems at home or may be suicidal or homicidal,” Arnold said. “If the client is suicidal or homicidal or just out of control, our mobile response team will go out into the community and try to de-escalate the situation so there is no incarceration or psychiatric inpatient. Sometimes being incarcerated or being admitted into a psychiatric facility can be more detrimental to one’s mental health than just having someone de-escalate a situation. We’re just trying to minimize those things and minimize law enforcement getting involved.”

Matteson is NYAP’s third mobile crisis response unit since the organization started serving children and families in 1997. Units exist in Peoria and Rockford. If a call comes through the national hotline or locally, and the caller’s location is closer to one of the other units, the call is transferred to that region. The Matteson site currently operates from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. It is working on staffing a third shift (1 a.m. to 9 a.m.) and looking for another crisis therapist to become a 24/7 operation. The other sites already are, Arnold said.

“We’re not just a crisis hotline where you call and we talk to you; we’re able to come to you and help you,” she said.

Arnold, who has a master’s in counseling, said the goal of staff members like herself is to get a caller back into a stable mental state via phone or in person. The staff documents the incident, creates a referral to the mobile response therapist, and then the therapist would conduct a 24-hour follow-up with the client to check in on their stability. If the caller wants to continue with the therapist’s mental health services, that’s an option.

The other Illinois sites have welcome centers where potential clients can walk in for assistance and follow-up services. Moore said Matteson is looking to create its own safe space for post-crisis care as the Mobile Crisis Response Team continues to make inroads in the community.

“We want to have a center with game systems for the kids, exercise equipment, TVs — a getaway if you need a break. And if you were to just walk in and needed help, we have resources available to give to you as well,” Moore said.

“Since we’re fairly new, there’s a lot of things that we’re still trying to build and get connected in the community,” Arnold said.

Engagement specialist Kenyatta Freeman was connected to the adults with disabilities community before joining the crisis response team in Matteson. The Blue Island resident is using her listening skills and patience for the community at large now. Freeman often pairs with Moore to work the phones on their 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift. Mobile crisis response specialists work with a clinician to make sure calls get answered and in-person community response is possible. While an engagement specialist engages with an individual’s issue, the intervention specialist can clinically assess the individual, Freeman said.

The south suburban location has been receiving more calls, with the majority coming from people in their 20s and 30s, Freeman said.

“We’ve had calls where individuals have been off their meds when we talk to their parents or guardian,” she said. “Mental health is real and since COVID and the pandemic, I feel like it got worse, especially in the youth community. COVID had a lot of impact. Families have fallen deep into poverty. I feel like they don’t know where to go. That’s when they came across our information, trying to seek the best help they could for their child.”

Moore said sometimes an elderly parent is calling on behalf of an adult child who suffers from mental health issues: “And they’re like, ‘I’m tired. I’m drained. I don’t know what else to do.’ They’re like, ‘This is my last resort. I don’t have anything else; what can you do for me?’

“We do get some calls where people say ‘I didn’t even know you guys were real,’” Moore said. “We give our program background and what resources we offer, where we’re located, our name, to let them know that we are here, we are real and we are willing to help. We always ask if they would want to meet with us in person. We are willing to go to their home and speak with them in person if they feel more comfortable.”

Moore said the staff is preparing for the holiday season and a possible influx of calls, since the holiday season is often a “time where people can bottom out through situational depression and anxiety about jobs, about how I’m going to feed my family,” according to Adrienne McCue, president and executive director of Step Up for Mental Health. A National Alliance on Mental Illness study shows that 64% of people with mental illness report that the holidays make their conditions worse.

Moore’s interaction with the mobile crisis team has led her to return to school to get her master’s in clinical psychology at Governors State University, a three-year program that she aims to complete in 2025.

“I like to tap into what people are thinking, give them words of encouragement as well,” she said. “Now I want to go more into the clinical aspect. We’re out here, if you need to talk. Just call us. We’re here.”

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