F. Castro / SFVS

DMH Director Jonathan Sherin and Supervisor Kathryn Berger show off one the county’s new Therapeutic Transport Vehicles.

Trying to get aid for those suffering through a mental health crisis as well as transporting them to an appropriate facility can be difficult, even dangerous.

But now those calling 911 for help with these situations might get a visit from one of 10 vans unveiled this week.

The Therapeutic Transport Vehicles are the latest addition to the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health (DMH), the largest county mental health department in the country.

DMH directly operates 75 program sites and more than 100 co-located sites. It contracts with approximately 1,000 providers, including non-governmental agencies and individual practitioners who provide a spectrum of mental health services to people of all ages to support hope, wellness and recovery.

“Caring for those suffering from a mental health crisis has to be both compassionate and strategic. With a fleet of 10 therapeutic treatment vans for @LACDMH and 19 Mental Evaluation Team vehicles for @LASDHQ, we have a larger capacity to meet community member’s needs,” said Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who launched the transport program on Monday, Sept. 9, at the Hall of Administration building in downtown Los Angeles.

“Those suffering from a mental health crisis need sensitive care and state-of-the-art resources. I’m excited to announce the launch of our new fleets of Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health,” Barger added.

The brand new vehicles are not ambulances or law enforcement transports. They don’t come with a siren or bars. Rather, they are designed to reduce the added trauma and discomfort people in the midst of a mental health episode experience while traveling in those vehicles that often require restraints.

It also frees up ambulances and police cars to respond to medical and law enforcement calls.

Each van will be staffed with a clinician and a peer support specialist whose job is to de-escalate the crisis. There’s also space for a loved one to ride along with the patient and a 40-inch monitor for teleconferencing with a psychiatrist while en route.

According to the “California Care Almanac” published by the California Health Care Foundation, 4.3% of adult Los Angeles County residents (and 7.8% of children) were diagnosed with a serious mental illness in 2014. That includes those with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression, which are increasingly landing people in the hospital.

Emergency room visits for a psychiatric crisis also increased 30% between 2010 to 2015.

The ten vans, which depict the Mental Health department’s logo and a crisis hotline number, will be distributed among the five Supervisorial districts, meaning each district has two. The City of San Fernando is part of the Third District, represented by Sheila Kuehl.

Barger and DMH officials also unveiled 10 other unmarked, white SUVs specifically designated for mental health evaluation teams that respond with sheriff’s deputies on mental health calls where the patient may be a danger to him/herself or others.

The vehicles won’t have backseat bars like patrol cars, but instead clear plexiglass in the middle to accommodate the person in custody on one side and a therapist on the other. 

The vehicles come equipped with air conditioning in the back seat to keep the person cool on hot days; high temperatures can often lead to agitation and escalation of the situation. There’s also a radio to play music, which can also help soothe the person and de-escalate the situation.

Until now, the Sheriff’s department only had five of these vehicles, which also come equipped with antennas to locate missing persons carrying the LA Found bracelets unveiled last year.

Sanjay Shah of the DMH, said the clinicians “start talking to them about what the ‘stressers’ are, what the issues are, giving them a chance rather than putting them in jail.”

Lt. John Gannon of the Sheriff’s Department said the deputies assigned to these units will receive more than 1,000 hours of special training in the first three years to deal with people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Their job is to reduce the use of force, talk them down, get them to cooperate and mitigate the situation.

Kathye Armitage of Moms Demand Action, said the grassroots movement of Americans fighting for public safety measures that can protect people from gun violence approves of these vehicles.

“It’s wonderful to see the EMT team get additional resources. This collaborative program between LASD and DMH is vital and a model program for others nationwide. They are doing amazing work,” she said on a Facebook post.

If you or your loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, you can call the Los Angeles County crisis hotline at (800) 854-7771.