Tustin PD’s mental health team keeps close watch on the community’s needs

By Jessica Peralta

Not all cries for help are obvious.

Some require an expert who knows what to ask and when to intervene.

It’s what makes Mia Andreani’s weekly ride-alongs with Tustin Police Department Master Officer Val Villarreal, Jr. so beneficial to the agency and community. Andreani, an OC Mental Health associate clinical social worker, is a member of the county health agency’s Psychiatric Emergency Response Team, which works with law enforcement agencies to connect with individuals in the community who could be experiencing a mental health crisis.

“The goal is to get people linked to care,” says Andreani.

Most of Andreani’s and Villarreal’s Wednesday ride-alongs involve following up on mental health-related calls originally handled by Tustin officers. These are calls that involved someone who could possibly qualify for an involuntary, temporary psychiatric hold utilized when a person is a danger to self or others.

Mia Andreani of the OC Health Care Agency.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

During the follow-ups, Andreani evaluates the individual to see how he or she is doing. If Andreani feels they are a danger, she will put them on an involuntary hold and is able to easily handle the whole process without any red tape.

Villarreal says partnering with a mental health social worker like Andreani streamlines the process and significantly reduces the amount of time that normally would be spent by patrol officers handling these types of incidents.

“That takes hours sometimes,” he says.

On a recent Wednesday, the two made their rounds through the city, going through Andreani’s list of people she wanted to check on. They started with a man they found near a shopping plaza trash bin, a transient Villarreal knows from prior contacts. Villarreal is assigned as a Community Impact Officer and part of his duties include working with the city’s homeless population. Andreani spent several minutes speaking to the man, with Villarreal at her side.

Villarreal said they checked in with the man to let him know they’re around if he needs them.

“Mia has a very good rapport with him,” Villarreal says.

Mia Andreani of the OC Health Care Agency and Tustin PD Master Officer Val Villarreal Jr. talk to a homeless man.
Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

In addition to follow-ups, Villarreal and Andreani will take mental health calls during their shift. They’ll take over the calls for the responding officers if there’s no criminal threat.

“It relieves the pressure off of patrol,” Villarreal says regarding the mental health evaluation calls. “We do everything start to finish.”

On other days of the week, Villarreal can still provide assistance to other officers for mental health calls, which helps move things along more efficiently. He will then note the call for future follow-up with Andreani.

“It’s almost like having mental health [assistance in the city] … 24/7,” Villarreal says.

They see a variety of mental health issues such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression and many others. Each individual requires his or her own unique level of services and referrals, which Andreani can provide.

Photo by Steven Georges/Behind the Badge OC

“We encounter a lot of different mental illnesses,” she says.

Part of their follow-up visits can also involve speaking with family members. While Andreani can’t disclose details to the family about the individual’s case, the family can tell her how he or she is doing to help her further evaluate the situation.

“We’ll get information from the family a lot,” she says. “We’ll ask about whether they are taking their medication, whether they’ve been sleeping OK.”

Villarreal points out that determining whether someone qualifies for an involuntary commitment case isn’t always crystal clear. An individual may say he or she wants to hurt themselves, but that kind of language isn’t always used. Sometimes the information is much more subtle. Which is why Andreani’s presence is so important.