How to improve emergency response for mental health crises

3 tips to build a more robust emergency response ecosystem for mental health crises in your communities


Mental health concerns are top of mind for many people in the country right now. According to one 2021 survey report conducted by Rave Mobile Safety, 94% of respondents are worried about the state of mental health in the United States, and 66% of people are more concerned now than they were one year ago – and that’s not surprising based on the last impact of the pandemic.

As gatherings are rescheduled, emergency responders, including EMS departments, have to think hard about how to serve their communities well during crises, especially those involving people with mental health challenges.

This is a difficult problem because many community members don’t feel confident in local public safety officials to address these types of emergencies effectively. Rave’s survey found that 86% of survey respondents “completely or somewhat agree that those tasked with public safety need to make improvements to better respond to mental health crises.”

Emergency responders need specialized training and education for dealing with mental health incidents with a focus on de-escalation, while still ensuring the safety of the public and responding agencies.
Emergency responders need specialized training and education for dealing with mental health incidents with a focus on de-escalation, while still ensuring the safety of the public and responding agencies. (image provided by CentralSquare Technologies)

So, what’s the answer?

Emergency responders need specialized training and education for dealing with mental health incidents with a focus on de-escalation, while still ensuring the safety of the public and responding agencies. This type of balance can be very difficult, especially in high stress and fast-moving situations. Professionals who could be involved in addressing these situations – from paramedics to dispatchers – must know what to do and who to contact under a wide variety of circumstances. Furthermore, emergency response teams should collaborate with community members to engage whenever appropriate and share information that helps ensure public safety officials can be successful.

To that end, here are three tips to help you build a more robust emergency response ecosystem for handling mental health crises in your communities.

1. Provide context for situational awareness to responders

Having reliable and actionable information is always key in emergencies. In many cases, response units are not aware of important details when a mental health crisis surfaces, creating confusion and adding complexity to chaotic circumstances. An incomplete picture of the emergency can result in wasted time, duplicative efforts and poor decisions that affect people’s lives. 

First responders, including 911 dispatchers, and other public safety officials must collaborate across departmental lines and share critical information that can positively impact an event. Information siloes only make everyone’s jobs more difficult, and can delay care for those who really need it or, worse, lead to a mishandled situation.

To share a real-world example of effective coordination, imagine an emergency situation involving someone with autism who doesn’t respond well to verbal commands who tends to be frightened around lights and sirens. Having seen this play out across the country many times, we know that there are a couple of ways these encounters tend to go and much of it depends on the information available to 911 and first responders, along with their specialized training for mental health events.

Now imagine places like Virginia Beach, Denver and Seattle that have all proactively leveraged technology to help collect critical information from the public. In locations like these and many more across the country, 911 call takers and responders can be provided with critical resident details, including voluntary mental health concerns, emergency contact details, pertinent medications and much more. Armed with this additional information, 911 can dispatch those trained in de-escalation methods that address the unique challenges faced by those with behavioral health and developmental issues that may impact a resident’s needs or the emergency response. Rather than send a police officer with limited mental health expertise, the dispatcher could coordinate with other departments to find personnel (e.g., mental health counselors) who are better positioned to calm the individual and collaborate with all of the stakeholders in an organized alternative response process.

Keep this in mind and break down information silos across your public safety ecosystem. Make the most of what you have by sharing it broadly, and trust that other teams can complement your efforts to maintain safer communities.

2. Proactively gather information to aid in crisis response

Emergency responders should feel empowered to encourage the public to share as much information as possible before a crisis occurs. Most people who call 911 in an emergency are too panicked to share all of the information that might be relevant. Outside of emergencies, though, EMS and local law enforcement can encourage community members to register information voluntarily about mental health or even other physical health challenges that exist within their households.

By notifying authorities of pre-existing medical conditions, including mental illness, community members give responders a head start when addressing emergencies involving specific people. Safety officials can bring in professionals who may already have a relationship with the person in crisis and implement tailored de-escalation methods.

Furthermore, studies have revealed that people are happy to share private information with emergency responders if it can be helpful in any way. Rave’s 2021 survey report found that nearly 80% of people are “completely or very willing to provide first responders with information on their mental health history or that of their loved ones.”

The takeaway: don’t hesitate to gather information proactively or ask for more engagement from community members. The more reliable the information you have, the better your decisions will be when emergencies unfold. It’s also important to keep in mind that community outreach and engagement is something that needs to happen on a regular basis, all year round. 

3. All first responder agencies can make a positive impact in the community

Safety is an ecosystem and the public’s perception and willingness to engage in a positive manner with public safety is influenced by the daily engagements the public has. Whether it be police, fire or EMS, each stakeholder has an opportunity to use their time in front of the public to engage and improve the end-to-end emergency responses. 

Frequent users of emergency services are some of the best starting points for engagement and collecting additional information that can then be used in the next response – or better yet, to prevent unnecessary responses or facilitate alternate responses that may be more appropriate for the event and individual. 

Being present and proactive is more important than ever. Start implementing the practices summarized here, and then let your constituents know that you are taking steps to improve how emergency responders approach mental health events. A few simple changes will go a long way towards strengthening relationships with community members and protecting those who may end up in emergency situations.


Read next:

Read next:

De-escalating mental health/substance abuse crises

Creating a safe scene begins with understanding how your patient’s mental and physical health connect, and in avoiding these 5 don’ts

 

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