For years some cities have had social workers or mental-health professionals respond to 911 calls from or about a despondent or agitated person. In most smaller communities that hasn't been an option, forcing local law officers — who may not be properly trained or equipped for a mental health emergency —to respond, report Tony Leys and Arielle Zionts for Kaiser Health News.
"They don’t know how to handle people like me," said Jeff White, an Iowa man who struggles with depression and schizophrenia. "They just don’t. They’re just guessing." White told Kaiser Health News that officers often took him to a hospital or jail. But now, as part of a program that serves 18 mostly rural counties in central and northern Iowa, residents like White are able to instead contact a state-run hotline that will send a pair of mental health professionals instead.
Though mental illness is just as prevalent in rural areas as urban ones, mental-health crisis response teams have been slower to catch on in rural areas because they are geographically larger and have fewer mental-health professionals, said Hannah Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. However, the programs are making inroads slowly across the country, as small police departments and sheriffs' offices find the crisis-response programs can save them time and money, Kaiser reports.
A South Dakota program called Virtual Crisis Care equips officers with iPads and officers "can use the tablets to set up video chats between people in crisis and counselors from a telehealth company." According to a state study, nearly 80% of the people who complete the video assessment wind up staying at home, as opposed to being taken by an officer to the hospital or jail for observation.