Mobile Outreach Team sees increase in calls

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By ANTHONY FLORES

A combination of COVID-19-related issues is increasing the number of mental health calls in Williamson County.

The Williamson County Mobile Outreach Team is working hard to offset the increase.

“Initially, our call volume went down a little bit in the initial period of everyone staying home,” said Mobile Outreach Director Annie Burwell. “It went down for a few days and since then has just risen steadily. We’re at about double our call volume as we were last year.”

For Burwell and her team, one of the new adjustments to COVID-19 is the incorporation of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“For us, it’s been business as usual, except we’ve added PPE, and that sometimes slows down our call response,” she said. “Other than that, we’re responding as we always have.”

The level of protection for the team depends on a few different factors. In a worst-case scenario, the team will approach individuals they are assisting fully gowned and gloved.

“Depending on the type of call we’re going to and the person’s health status, we’re at a minimum wearing either a surgical mask or an N95 mask,” said Burwell. “In other situations, we’re fully gowned and gloved, with a face shield and mask.”

To create a safer situation, the outreach team tries to meet with individuals outdoors instead of in the home.

“We also offer masks to the person we’re meeting with, and we try to meet with people outside if that’s possible,” said Burwell. “So, in the backyard or on the porch. If we need to go into the home, we certainly will, but as a precaution, we’re doing more of our face to face interventions outside.”

Burwell is seeing that many calls are from people with severe issues that may be aggravated by current conditions.

“Primarily, it’s people struggling with serious mental illness who may find it difficult to cope during the pandemic. With the additional stress, some people have a harder time with day-to-day functioning,” she said. “People who are having an increase in issues like being more depressed or more manic. It’s something along those lines where they’re struggling to manage symptoms.”

The current economic conditions are also playing a part in the increased stress people are experiencing.

“We’ve also seen an increase in stress due to unemployment and pending evictions. We’re working at the crossroads, pandemic, mental illness, and financial stress. Those things take a toll,” said Burwell.

The safety of the individuals in crisis is the most vital thing for the MOT. The team implements various methods to help de-escalate situations.

“We have a variety of tools and techniques we use. One is to make sure the person is safe and medically okay,” said Burwell. “Sometimes, we take one of our paramedics out to make sure the person doesn’t have any medical needs. Then we do whatever it takes to help the person manage the crisis.

Occasionally that means they need to go to an inpatient. Much more often, about 80 percent of the time, we can either arrange for crisis counseling, change in medication, or a visit with a psychiatrist via tele-med.”

Burwell says there are some things people can do at home before needing to call the MOT.

“There’s a couple of things we want people to consider. One is to reach out to things that have been helpful in the past. If they have a faith-based community or some supportive family, that’s a great place to start,” she said. “The state also has a COVID-specific hotline where people can talk about the stress they’re dealing with.”

For those seeking aid, the Texas Health and Human Services run a COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line. The 24/7 free line is a resource for residents to speak with mental health professionals. People can reach the support line at 833-986-1919 and can contact the Williamson County MOT at 512-864-8277.

Predicting how things will be in the coming weeks and months is difficult as the COVID situation changes from day-to-day. Burwell believes the situation is far from over.

“I don’t think we know yet. It’s going to depend on what the virus does and what kind of funding is in the system related to evictions and financial stresses,” she said. “I think this is going to be here for a while. There are a lot of big decisions that families are trying to make about school and employment. So, I don’t think this is going to be over any time soon.”

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