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More on the virtual mental health response program coming to Nevada

A monochrome photo shows someone’s hands typing on a tablet.
Esther Vargas
Flickr Creative Commons

Some law enforcement agencies in Nevada are piloting a virtual response program for mental health emergencies. KUNR’s Jose Davila IV sat down with news reporter Lucretia Cunningham to learn more.

Jose Davila IV: Nevada lawmakers recently approved allocating grant funding to bring the Virtual Crisis Care program to 11 law enforcement agencies in the state. What is this program? And where is the funding for this coming from?

Lucretia Cunningham: Yeah, so the program equips law enforcement agencies with tablets, and they'll use those to provide 24/7 access to behavioral health professionals via telehealth. This comes from a rural health care program that funds projects to bring health care to people who can sometimes, because of location, have difficulty accessing it.

The almost $4 million grant comes from a philanthropy called the Helmsley Charitable Trust to launch the program over three years. After that, the state has committed to financing through the Department of Health and Human Services in what they’re saying is a cost-neutral program. They figure the cost saved by not transporting a person in crisis from a scene will allow the program to pay for itself.

Davila: How were the law enforcement agencies chosen to pilot the program?

Cunningham: These are agencies that volunteered to participate and have applied to be a part of this pilot program. There are seven, mostly rural, counties participating, some located hours away from the nearest mental health services.

Here’s Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee saying how it will help them. The nearest metro area to Lincoln County is more than 150 miles away in Las Vegas.

(SOUNDBITE FROM LINCOLN COUNTY SHERIFF KERRY LEE): The mental health calls that we’re responding to just increase more and more and more. We’re dealing with more and more in our jail, and these people don’t belong in jail.

Lee says this will really take the burden off of officers in the field who are really taking on more than they’re trained for.

Davila: How does this enable law enforcement to be more effective?

Cunningham: Not only does this allow law enforcement officers to avoid triaging mental health patients in the field, but it also helps them to avoid over-policing what's really a medical emergency. It gets the person in crisis to the appropriate provider without having to transport them to a hospital or jail.

Sheriff Kerry Lee also talks about how the follow-up services provided with this program will decrease police callbacks.

(SOUNDBITE FROM LEE): If we put them in jail or we put them on a legal hold, none of that matters unless we have follow-up. I think that is a huge thing that we have been lacking over the years, is somebody to follow up with these people. If we don’t follow up, guess what? Next week, we’re going to be dealing with them again. Or they get released out of jail, then, guess what? A week later, they’re back in the jail again, and it’s a revolving door.

Elko Police Chief Ty Trouten also talks about the program being another tool in his agency’s toolbox. While Elko is a larger city than Lincoln County, it doesn’t have the mental health resources of a metro area like Reno, which is more than 280 miles away.

Davila: This program was originally piloted in South Dakota; what was the success rate there?

That's right! The program started in 18 South Dakota counties in 2020 and then was expanded in 2021. The state’s Unified Judicial System kept track of the outcomes over the years and consistently report an 80% diversion rate. That’s 80% of the mental health calls they respond to are diverted from involuntary hospitalization or jail.

Davila: How does this program fare for people who are non-English speaking?

Cunningham: So, the behavioral health services are provided by a third-party telehealth provider called Avel eCare. They provide the initial evaluation and follow-up resources for the person in crisis. They also have interpretation services available for some 200 languages.

This conversation aired on KUNR FM on Friday, July 15.

The photo included in this story is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Lucretia Cunningham is a former contributing reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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