Community mental health agency call lines connect Michiganders with local crisis care

Call line staff working in the team room at Summit Pointe's First Step Urgent Care.This article is part of MI Mental Health, a new series highlighting the opportunities that Michigan's children, teens and adults of all ages have to find the mental health help they need, when and where they need it. It is made possible with funding from the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan and its community mental health (CMH) agency members. 

More than half of all adults in America who experience struggles with mental health do not receive treatment, according to Mental Health America. This can be due to a variety of reasons — the treatment a patient needs is not affordable or not covered by insurance, services may be far away or otherwise inaccessible, or a patient may simply not know what kinds of treatment options are available to them. That lack of treatment often exacerbates mental health struggles, which can lead to individuals falling into crises that they aren’t fully equipped to handle. However, Michigan’s community mental health agencies (CMHs) are doing their best to bridge those gaps by making good use of their mental health crisis hotlines and warmlines. 

While services like the National 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or the Michigan Crisis and Access Line (MiCAL) are available to Michigan residents no matter what county they reside in, a call to a local CMH crisis line can sometimes be more direct and offer services that may not be available when calling 988 or MiCAL, for example follow-up calls and mobile mental health emergency care. As more and more people learn more about mental health and how it affects their own lives, call volume at these local CMH lines has been continuously increasing.

Allegan CMH: Big help for a smaller population

Take Allegan County, for example. OnPoint, Allegan County’s CMH agency, provides the more than 120,000 county residents with care through experienced psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, counselors, nurses, job developers, and support providers. 

High intensity service program manager Melissa Potvin heads the crisis team at OnPoint, which can be reached at 888-354-0596. She reports a 15 to 20% increase in call volume over the past three years. 

“With our call line, it’s not one and done,” Potvin says. “If we need to follow up in a few days, we will. We’re going to make a record of the conversation. Our clinicians know they can send out a follow-up with a family. That’s totally different from a national line.” 

Valerie Lamper, on the phone, is a clinical social worker at Summit Pointe's First Step Urgent Care.With 988 answering over two million calls in 2021, it’s no wonder that follow-up might not occur between 988 responders and callers. Potvin also described how national line responders follow a script for every case prior to redirecting the caller to local services when available, which might discourage people in crisis from reaching out.

“When folks call for help, they’ve tried other places and they weren’t the right place,” says OnPoint executive director Mark Witte. “The thing that distinguishes OnPoint from a regular service provider is we want to help them find what they need whether we have it or not. We aren’t here to force you into our shoes. We want to get you the service you need.”

Because situations involving mental health are so individualized, it’s crucial to OnPoint and other CMHs that care is not only quality but also personalized, regardless of how big or small the community is. 

“Some of the larger, more urban areas that have enough volume of calls will have dedicated call centers in their CMH,” explained Potvin. “For Allegan, a smaller community, that wouldn’t be financially responsible. We have a telephonic after-hours answering service [that can connect callers with] qualified responsible mental health clinicians.” 

This back-and-forth rapport between skilled clinicians, OnPoint staff, and callers allows Potvin and the rest of the OnPoint team to continuously improve and provide the community with the services it needs.

Summit Pointe's First Step program operates out of their facility on College Street in Battle Creek.Calhoun County: Psychiatric urgent care 

Other CMHs have also followed suit in implementing community feedback to improve their services. Sean Field, clinical director at Summit Pointe in Calhoun County, has been focusing on restructuring how patients get access to mental health care. 

“A lot of services are built so you have to know what level of care you need,” Field says. “We expect people to navigate those systems on their own in the midst of having struggles. Our customers don’t have to make that decision. If they have any mental health needs, they come here.” 

“Here” for Calhoun County is First Step, a psychiatric urgent care facility that opened its doors to Calhoun County in March 2021. The facility sees approximately 350 patients a month through its various programs. Not only do all calls to the 24/7 emergency line, 800-634-5449, get directed to First Step, residents can also go in person to the facility for immediate care or assistance.

Sean Field, clinical director, Summit Pointe“I think people have learned that if they have an emergency or a pressing need, they go to urgent care or the emergency room,” says Field. “The biggest message we want to get to the community is the last place you want to be [in a mental health crisis] is a busy, loud, distracting emergency room.”

Individuals experiencing a mental health crisis don’t always need to be admitted into an inpatient or emergency facility but ultimately arrive there because they or those trying to help them weren’t sure of exactly how to help them. Summit Pointe and other CMHs have the goal and intention to guide callers through their crisis and develop safety plans that keep hospital beds open for those who truly need them while avoiding unnecessary added stress or trauma  for the caller.

“We’re getting about 18 customers diverted to our facility each month that either would have gone to jail or the hospital,” explains Field. “When you free up one person from going to the wrong point of entry of care, it helps the individual and the systems like hospitals and law enforcement to focus efforts where they belong.”

Washtenaw County call line reaches schools and shopping malls
Kelly Quinn, on the phone, is a clinical social worker at Summit Pointe's First Step Urgent Care.

The increase in call volume at all CMH crisis lines doesn’t necessarily mean an uptick in residents having mental health emergencies. Like OnPoint and Summit Pointe, Washtenaw County’s crisis line also functions as an access line.

Trish Cortes, executive director at Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH), explains that its 24/7 call line, 734-544-3050, is residents’ one-stop-shop to accessing mental health services in the county. 

“We triage all the calls, and all of our mental health professionals sort out the response,” she says.

Those professionals are master's-level social workers, as is required of all CMH staff answering after-hours call lines. WCCMH staff not only provide callers with a conversation that guides them through a crisis or informs them of what resources may be available to them but also sends its mobile crisis team straight to an individual in crisis. 

“We go to a situation instead of having a situation come to us,” says Cortes. “We respond based on what is occurring in the individual situation, which can be going to a family home for crisis planning or to a hospital.”

In addition to calling the line with questions about resources or to do crisis planning to prevent future emergencies, the WCCMH call line provides residents with assistance in finding emergency housing, addressing food insecurity, and connecting to Crisis Residential Services (CRS) 24/7 for inpatient psychiatric services in a less intensive setting. WCCMH also responds to calls from individuals or families as well as social workers in Washtenaw schools.

“What our partners have been seeing and what we’ve been seeing is schools sending kids [in a mental health crisis] to emergency rooms,” says Cortes. “Our partners in the schools didn’t quite realize how high the bar is set to actually have a student hospitalized.” 

In response to this, Cortes says that WCCMH staff has worked very closely with local schools to train them in recognizing mental health emergencies in students, as well as in de-escalation techniques. Schools aren’t the only non-residential location the team responds to — shopping centers and local stores also have worked alongside WCCMH to handle mental health crises.

“We are really, truly everywhere,” Cortes says. “It’s a huge support to our community, and the mobility of the team is really what makes it as successful as it is.”

Michigan’s CMH mental health call lines are providing connections to mental health resources that many residents may not realize are already at their disposal. Each CMH approaches the process of providing care differently and continuously seeks feedback from their communities to ensure their residents receive the best care possible on what may be one of the most difficult days of their lives. As CMHs do their part to destigmatize asking for help when it comes to mental health, more Michigan residents learn about their own mental health needs. And as the call volume at these call centers continues to grow, ultimately that will make for a mentally healthier Michigan.

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.

Photos by John Grap.