One sunny afternoon earlier this month, Judy Parker headed into Occidental Park looking for a man named Eddie. She’d heard he was new to the area and needed a state ID.
Parker weaved through the crowd of people who gather at the cobblestone plaza in Pioneer Square. She bumped fists with one, gave a hug to another.
Within about 10 minutes, Parker had found Eddie and arranged to meet with him and help him get the state ID card, which will help him gain access to things like housing and employment.
Parker is one of about 60 people who, wearing yellow polo shirts and navy slacks, patrol downtown areas on foot and by bike for the Metropolitan Improvement District (MID), a city-funded program operated by the Downtown Seattle Association (DSA), a kind of chamber of commerce.
The MID runs from South King Street to Denny Way. The MID’s ambassadors, as they are called, canvass the areas, picking up trash and giving directions to tourists.
About half of the MID’s street crew are safety ambassadors, serving as the eyes and ears for businesses and police. Homeless youth at Westlake Park call them “bumble bees,” which is hardly the harshest term Parker has heard.
“People have called us snitches and wannabe cops,” she said.
The DSA now wants people to think of the yellow-clad ambassadors as first-responders for mental health.
Larry Clum, a mental health counselor at Union Gospel Mission, is training the DSA’s crew to watch and respond to people struggling with mental illness. This will enable MID ambassadors to check in on people they’ve known downtown for years, encourage them to get support and, in some cases, de-escalate people having a mental health crisis.
Rather than calling 911 to respond to mental health crises, ambassadors can call Clum, who has worked in emergency rooms and at Sound Mental Health on Capitol Hill.
Union Gospel Mission is also calling on the public to help. Through a program called Mental Health First Aid, the mission is training business owners and downtown employees to talk with someone experiencing a mental health crisis and get them into professional care.
The approach is part of a nationwide trend. Experts say that in addition to needing more counselors and hospital beds, people who are mentally ill need help from those around them.
Mental Health First Aid was developed in Australia more than a decade ago. According to the National Council for Community Behavioral Health Care, one in 100 people in Australia get the training. Now, the National Council is trying to create a better understanding of mental illness in the United States.
It seems to be working: Over the past three years, at least 100,000 people in the United States took the training.
President Barack Obama talked about Mental Health First Aid in speeches in January and asked Congress to allocate $20 million for training. The Washington State Legislature included Mental Health First Aid training in a bill to bolster safety programs in public schools. It’s awaiting Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature.
In King County, the need for mental health treatment is great. One night this month, 40 people were detained in King County medical hospitals and emergency rooms for treatment because the few psychiatric beds in the region were full.
“There aren’t enough therapists, ambassadors and counselors to do that work,” Clum said.
Mental Health First Aid can’t make up for the lack of resources available for serious mental health treatment.
“We do not teach people how to treat or diagnose,” said Bryan Gibbs, director of public education at the National Council for Behavioral Health Care. “That’s not at all our intention, any more than first aid is an attempt to do a surgeon’s job because there’s not a lot of surgeons.”
Union Gospel Mission’s Mike Johnson gathered 10 people at the DSA’s office building at Sixth Avenue and Stewart Street on May 6 for a Mental Health First Aid class. The students were people who work downtown and are likely to meet people who have a mental illness.
Five students came from FareStart, a nonprofit food service training program for homeless and disadvantaged adults and teens. Two came from Operation Nightwatch, an outreach program for homeless people. There was also one MID ambassador and a woman who works at Argosy Cruises on the waterfront.
Over nine two-hour trainings, the group will role-play situations and learn how to listen nonjudgmentally. They will learn to identify suicide risks and to de-escalate panic attacks.
Members of the group will receive a certificate, much like CPR training. Johnson hopes it will help them to get involved the next time they see someone downtown having a psychotic episode.