Pacifica conference highlights services for mental health emergencies 

click to enlarge Erroll Chang
  • Brendan P. Bartholomew/Special to the S.f. Examiner
  • Pacifica community members attend a vigil for Erroll Chang, a man who was killed in an officer-involved shooting.
The Pacifica community recently hosted a conference to raise awareness about various mental health services available to county residents facing an emergency.

The event came on the heels of fatal officer-involved shootings in Pacifica and Half Moon Bay earlier this year, which Pacifica Mayor Mary Ann Nihart said made it clear that both police and members of the public were unaware of specific resources that might prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.

In the first incident in March, relatives of 34-year-old Erroll Chang called 911 to report that the longtime Pacifica resident was having a paranoid episode related to his schizophrenia.

A six-hour standoff ensued, resulting in Chang’s death when a SWAT team entered his home and shot him after he allegedly attacked an officer with a knife.

In another incident in early June, the family of 18-year-old Half Moon Bay resident Yanira Serrano-Garcia called 911 to report that she was experiencing a psychiatric emergency. A sheriff’s deputy responding to the call shot and killed Serrano-Garcia after she allegedly came toward him brandishing a knife.

Nihart, who additionally works as a psychiatric nurse practitioner and is president-elect of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, said her work in the mental health field made the recent tragedies especially personal for her.

She said she hopes to see the city and county improve their efforts to not only help people with mental illnesses and their families, but to also make them aware that services are available.

While mental health organization representatives spoke at the event about how supporting people with mental illness can often prevent their problems from escalating to the point where 911 calls become necessary, San Mateo County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services representative Pernille Gutschick detailed specific steps for family members to follow when calling 911 on behalf of a loved one.

If it appears a relative could potentially become the focus of a 911 call, Gutschick recommends filing an AB 1424 form with the county and police. The form provides responders with relevant information about a person’s history and can be downloaded here.

Gutschick said 911 callers often want to tell dispatchers everything about a situation, but it’s best to inform the dispatcher that the family member is having a “behavioral health emergency” and to clearly answer the dispatcher’s questions, being as brief and specific as possible. In addition to asking the dispatcher to make sure someone checks the individual’s AB 1424 form, Gutschick recommended asking for a CIT, or “Crisis Intervention Training,” officer to respond. Crisis intervention officers are specifically trained to handle mental health crisis situations.

Callers to 911 in San Mateo County are also advised to request that a San Mateo County Mental Health Assessment and Referral Team (SMART) be called to the location.

Panelist Anita Rees, the Pacifica Resource Center executive director, discussed how mentally ill residents often struggle with poverty-related issues and her agency works to provide assistance including food, shelter, clothing and referrals to counseling. Such services can play a role in reducing the kinds of stresses that cause mentally ill people to have “breaks,” Rees noted.

While the conference focused on people with mental illnesses and their families, one audience member called for greater focus on police conduct in light of the officer-involved shootings.

Activist Nina Parks claimed police officers are sometimes not held accountable for their actions, and she expressed disappointment that police representatives were not present to address her concerns. She acknowledged, however, that police officers can face great stress, and suggested they could benefit from more support and better training.

Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Director Stephen Kaplan said another resource to help family members in crisis is the county’s mobile Family Assertive Support Team, which is available 24/7. It can be reached at (650) 368-3178.

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