Springfield-Greene County 911 Director discusses challenges of behavioral health crisis intervention

Published: Oct. 26, 2021 at 11:55 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - A new survey released on Tuesday highlights the challenges 911 call centers face when it comes to a mental health crisis.

The Pew Research Center says some call centers have gaps in that kind of training. According to the survey, some 911 call centers around the country have very few staff with behavioral health crisis training, and most have only limited options in how to respond to crisis calls.

Time is often a very critical factor when 911 calls are made, and a mental health crisis can sometimes add additional challenges. As soon as a call comes in to a 911 center, dispatchers immediately asses the situation.

“One thing that we do in 911, and one thing that we understand are our limitations here,” said Springfield-Greene County 911 Emergency Communications Director Kris Inman. “Oftentimes, it is believed that 911 is capable of solving or determining much more than we actually are.”

That is why Inman said understanding limitations is the key.

”We try to break down what our folks are looking for, listening for, in terms of is this person I’m talking to a threat to themselves, are they a threat to other people,” he described. “So we don’t spend a tremendous amount of time trying to determine the semantics beyond that. We train our folks to look for very quick things to kind of help determine, you know, is this a caller that would benefit from having an officer respond to see if there is harm being done? Or would this caller perhaps respond better from a transfer to the Burrell crisis line?”

Inman said police are dispatched anytime there is a potential for harm, but other times he said a transfer to the Burrell crisis line can help address the situation.

”What they’re going to get immediately is really just that immediate care and conversations to get them over that hump,” Matt Lemmon with Burrell Behavioral Health said. “We’ll do a suicide risk assessment, see what level of care and what situation they may be in. And really try to connect them to those resources whatever they may be.”

Lemmon said every mental health crisis is “self-defined.” He said people should always reach out if they ever have any doubts or unsure feelings.

“If you’re asking yourself if you need help, if you are certainly thinking about causing self harm, if you’re thinking about causing harm to others, then it’s time to call someone and get some help,” Lemmon said.

According to the Pew survey, dispatchers on the line are tasked with processing the caller’s information and deciding who to dispatch to the scene, but there is not a standard national protocol for handling emergency calls. There are also more than 5,000 separate call centers across the country.

“While we don’t have a nationally mandated similar mental health training across the country, there are different types of mental health training our folks attend,” Inman said. “And [they] have for some time and will continue to do so as we continue to hone in on this.”

Pew conducted its survey by sending a questionnaire to 233 call centers across the country, but only 37 responded in 27 states. Researchers said the study cannot be considered nationally representative, but said the study still provides insight into existing behavioral health response obstacles.

Inman said most dispatch centers would likely agree there is always work to be done.

“We are actively working on this with other accompanying agencies in the city and in the county,” he said. “We’ve actively been involved with meetings trying to determine how can we be better? How can these agencies and these responses be more tailored specifically to what the citizens may need? So that is certainly underway.”

Both Inman and Lemmon said they believe the use of the new 988 number next year will have a big impact on addressing mental health crises.

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