With state funding, Burlington moves closer to launching a mental health crisis response team

Burlington is moving closer to launching a a new crisis response team run by the Howard Center Photo by Patrick Crowley/VTDigger

With a state grant assured, Burlington is moving closer to a rollout this year of a crisis response team to help with mental health emergencies.

Mayor Miro Weinberger announced to the city council on Monday night that the $667,252 grant from the Vermont Department of Mental Health would be paid to the city over a period of two years and would amount to about half the cost for a new crisis response team run by the Howard Center.

The new team is a “medically-enhanced crisis response team,” according to Jackie Corbally, a consultant working with the city on the program’s implementation. Corbally said she is working with the Howard Center to sign an agreement and to settle on a target date for the team’s rollout, expected to be this year. Corbally told the council on Monday that the city was informed of the state grant last week. 

Beth Holden, Howard Center’s chief client services officer, said in an emailed statement that “Howard Center continues to work collaboratively with the City to clarify how best to work with existing and enhanced Howard Center and City resources to improve the crisis response for individuals in Burlington.”

Weinberger said Monday he expects the team to have seven staff members and the hiring process “could be lengthy.” He added that the city is looking for ways to get the team started as soon as possible by using existing resources and staff.

“Nobody wants this sooner than those folks that this is going to serve,” Corbally said in her update to the council. “So we understand time is of the essence.”

City Councilor Joe Magee, P-Ward 2, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the crisis team and glad the city brought someone on to help with implementation. “I think it’s safe to say that before Jackie Corbally came on board to help with that, like, the program wasn’t going anywhere,” Magee said.

Mental health calls have been on the rise in Burlington. According to data provided by the Burlington Police Department, there were 1,234 mental health calls received in 2022, a 29% increase from 2021. 

The crisis team is often compared to a program that originated in Eugene, Oregon, called Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets, or CAHOOTS. Dispatched through 911 emergency call centers, the team pairs social workers and medical responders to respond to reports of mental health crises. It diverts calls that otherwise would have been handled by police officers or ambulance teams.

Alison Krompf, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health, said the addition of medical personnel is the important distinction in such teams.

“That’s new and different and impactful because the people on the other side of that intervention often don’t have just one need,” Krompf said, adding that she is excited to see the Burlington program in action because it could provide more options of care other than police involvement or a hospital emergency department.

“We hear from people that they would really like the option of getting their needs met without having to go through the emergency department and inpatient hospital route,” Krompf said. There still will be others who do end up needing the emergency department, she said, “but when they show up there, it’s so busy. Their waits are extraordinary because we have people there who may not need to be there.”

Currently, the city uses community service liaisons, who are social workers, and community service officers, who are unarmed officers who work for the police department and respond to many mental health calls. Additionally, the Howard Center has a street outreach team that works closely with first responders in the city and a First Call crisis line.

In a request for proposals for the new crisis response team sent out last March, the city said it was seeking to expand its “non-enforcement crisis response.”

“Even with a community-centered model, however, Burlington residents’ requirements exceed the current capacity of the social-service network,” read the project background included in the city’s request.

The city said it wants qualified mental health clinicians as well as medical professionals who would be either nurses or emergency medical technicians. The city said it wanted the team to have regular hours from Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., but on-call staff would be needed after hours.

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