BRIDGEPORT, CT  —  There are only two Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services mobile crisis teams that can respond to emergencies in the area between Stratford and the New York border, according to Dr. Sundar Ramaswami, who supervises the two-person teams.

The teams are only available from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, leaving individuals who are having a mental health crisis after hours or on weekends no option but to call police, he said.

“We’re asking our clients to have their crisis during banker’s hours,” Ramaswami said.

Ramaswami was one of dozens of New England Health Workers Union District 1199 members who rallied Wednesday during a “die in” outside DHMAS’ Greater Bridgeport Community Mental Health Center. They are asking Gov. Ned Lamont to provide more funding for mental health services.

“We don’t deserve to have the police when we have a mental health crisis,” Gemeem Davis, co-director of Bridgeport Generation Now, said. “We need the state to invest in mental health and mobile crisis teams and 211.”

Julian Shafer, a history teacher at Danbury High School and a member of Bridgeport Generation Now spoke of his mother’s battle with alcohol and how she wound up incarcerated until the family could arrange for rehab.

“She was able to go to rehab because she had insurance,” Shafer said. “While she was incarcerated she met many other women who had been waiting for months to get into state rehab because there was such a backlog. The state needs to fully fund mental health services.”

The rallying members lay down in the street after the speakers to demonstrate that if mental health services aren’t expanded, people will die.

The Appropriations Committee has included an extra $2.5 million in both years of the budget specifically for mobile crisis teams, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said. 

“We need to do a lot more for mental health,” the committee co-chair said. “If someone has a mental health component, police departments are being sent. The mobile crisis teams don’t replace police, but we wanted to give them an extra tool in the tool box.”

Lamont proposed fully funding the teams to operate 24/7 using federal American Rescue Plan funds. However, that source of money will run out in two years and state officials said it’s unknown whether they can even use those funds for mobile crisis teams. 

The mobile crisis teams respond to dramatically mentally ill people who can be acutely suicidal, suffering from acute mania during a manic depressive episode or suffering from schizophrenia and off their medication, Ramaswami said.

“They all pose a risk to the community and to the police,” he said.

But due to a lack of funding, the teams cannot hire more clinicians and they can’t respond to a call unless both team members are working, Ramaswami said. “Sometimes a team member can find a clinician who is willing to go along but they aren’t trained in mobile crisis response,” he said.

On average, the teams respond to about two calls a day, he said. During June 2020, after the state had been shut down for three months due to the pandemic, the teams responded to a record 90 calls in one month, Ramaswami said. That’s a 50% increase in the number of individuals calling for help in acute need.

“I end up telling people to call police if they call after hours, or I can come on the next work day,” he said. “If it’s a Sunday and the next day is Monday, that’s one thing, but if it’s a Friday, that’s another. This is inadequate. We are bothering police with social service calls.”