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WilCo's 'Mental Health First Responders' Rise To The Challenge As Calls Double During The Pandemic

CEDAR PARK, TX. Dec. 17, 2020. Mental Health Specialist Ife Oyedokun, left, and Lead Paramedic Daniel Sledge, both with the Williamson County Mobile Outreach Team, respond to a call. Michael Minasi/KUT
Michael Minasi
Ife Oyedokun, a mental health specialist, and paramedic Daniel Sledge respond to a call to the Williamson County Mobile Outreach Team.

As Tracy Allen crushed crisp leaves on Karen’s lawn, she was thinking of what questions she would ask, how she would phrase them, what updates she could give. She last spoke to Karen just days ago, when she was working to get her 31-year-old son, Kevin, help for his methamphetamine addiction.

Karen opens the door and they talk openly, nothing held back, like they've known each other for years. The conversation is heavy. It covers everything from Kevin’s arrests, the various places he's been living, his temporary sobriety and the long-term effects of using.

Karen is in tears. But Allen, who works for the Mobile Outreach Team in Williamson County, keeps her composure. She knows how to balance hard truths with comforting plans. She explains how she is advocating for Kevin in the hospital and with officers, and lays out the next steps for his recovery.

“I just don't know how we would survive a week without you,” Karen says. “Y'all have been wonderful. You know, you've been there every step of the way.”

The Mobile Outreach Team, or MOT, is made up of behavioral health specialists and paramedics. They act as “mental health first responders,” responding to calls for help.

Police or EMS personnel can call for the MOT to come out to a scene that involves a person using drugs or alcohol or who appears to have a mental health issue. The team also gets calls directly.

These calls more than doubled over the course of the pandemic, and they are still setting record highs each month.

MOT Director Annie Burwell said she thinks there are a number of factors that may be causing the spike in calls, like financial worries and stress about the pandemic in general.

The calls yield an array of problems and solutions. Team members do everything from responding to overdoses, connecting people with hospitals or counselors, or just finding the best care that doesn’t involve a hospital or jail.

And they go beyond just emergency care at that moment. Team members follow up as needed or wanted by clients.

A year and a half ago, it was Jillian Zilliot and William Sjolin calling. The couple were addicted to heroin and living in Sjolin’s truck.

“We really wanted help,” Zilliot said. “Like, we didn't know where to look. And especially since we were a couple, made it even harder.”

The team got them into a hotel and connected them with a doctor as they began detoxing. But MOT also helped them buy gas for the truck, pay for new brakes and eventually put down money for an apartment.

“The transition [off heroin] was very, very hard,” Zilliot said. “I mean, we would be crying in the shower like we just did not know when it would end, but we felt safe because these people were offering so much help to us.”

Their recovery spanned several months and various living situations, but ultimately, the couple got jobs, an apartment, two dogs and a car.

They still regularly speak to the outreach team.

AUSTIN, TX. Dec. 23, 2020. William Sjolin, left, and Jillian Zilliot, right, are pictured leaning against the truck they used to be living out of. The couple were assisted by the Williamson County Mobile Outreach Team. Michael Minasi/KUT
Michael Minasi
Jillian Zilliot and William Sjolin were addicted to heroin and living out of Sjolin's truck before they got help from the Williamson County Mobile Outreach Team.

“It's coming up on a year since we've done heroin and like that was unheard of for us at the time, like I just never would have thought that I would ever stop doing it,” Zilliot said.

Despite the pandemic, the MOT has continued to answer calls and follow up with clients. They're wearing personal protective gear these days and often work longer hours because of the high call volume.

Burwell said she's concerned about what long-term effects the pandemic will have on drug use and mental health.

“I think it's new turf,” she said. “I think that we are going to see people who have struggled with isolation during the pandemic and struggled with an increase in symptoms of their mental illness and maybe had an overdose or maybe even started using drugs during the pandemic."

She advocates small ways to take care of mental and physical health, including reaching out for help and reaching out to others in need.

“It's the basics to like eating healthy, getting some exercise, drinking water,” Burwell said. “All those things … that are easy to say, hard to do on a daily basis. Those things will make most people feel better.”

Allyson Ortegon is a former Williamson County reporter for KUT.
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