Mental health problems are currently a top priority for many people in the country. According to a 2021 survey report by Rave Mobile Safety, 94% of respondents are concerned about the state of their mental health in the United States, and 66% of people are more concerned today than they were a year ago – and that’s not surprising on the final effects of the pandemic.

As gatherings are postponed, emergency responders, including emergency medical services departments, need to think carefully about how to best serve their communities in crisis situations, especially when affecting people with mental health problems.

This is a difficult problem as many community members do not trust that local security officers can effectively address these types of emergencies. Rave’s survey found that 86% of respondents “fully or partially agree that those in charge of public safety need to make improvements to better respond to mental crises”.

Rescue workers require specific training and education in dealing with mental health incidents with an emphasis on de-escalation while maintaining the safety of the public and emergency services. (Image provided by CentralSquare Technologies)

So what’s the answer?

Rescue workers require specific training and education in dealing with mental health incidents with an emphasis on de-escalation while maintaining the safety of the public and emergency services. This type of balance can be very difficult, especially in situations of high stress and fast moving movements. Professionals who might be involved in managing these situations – from paramedics to dispatchers – need to know what to do and who to turn to in a wide variety of circumstances. In addition, emergency response teams should work with members of the community to engage, whenever appropriate, and share information that will help public safety officers be successful.

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

1. Provide context for situational awareness to emergency responders

In an emergency, it is always important to have reliable and actionable information. In many cases, when a mental crisis arises, emergency responders are not aware of important details, which creates confusion and complicates chaotic circumstances. An incomplete picture of the emergency can lead to wasted time, duplicate efforts, and bad decisions that affect people’s lives.

First responders, including emergency response centers, and other public safety officers need to work together across departments and share important information that can have a positive impact on an incident. Information silos only make everyone’s job difficult and can delay supplying those who really need them or, worse, lead to the wrong situation.

To share a practical example of effective coordination, imagine an emergency situation involving someone with autism who does not respond well to verbal commands and is prone to fear of lights and sirens. Having experienced this many times across the country, we know that these encounters can go in different ways and much of it depends on the information available to 911 and first responders, along with their specific mental illness training.

Now imagine places like Virginia Beach, Denver, and Seattle, all of which are proactively using technology to gather critical information from the public. At locations like this and many others across the country, emergency numbers and answering machines can receive vital information about residents, including voluntary mental health issues, emergency contact details, relevant medication, and more. Armed with this additional information, 911 can dispatch those trained in de-escalation methods to address the unique challenges faced by those with behavioral health and developmental issues that may affect a resident’s needs or emergency response. Instead of sending a police officer with limited mental health experience, the dispatcher could coordinate with other departments to recruit personnel (e.g.

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

2. Proactively collect information to aid crisis response

Rescue workers should feel able to encourage the public to share as much information as possible before a crisis occurs. Most of the people who call 911 in an emergency are too panicked to reveal any information that might be relevant. However, outside of emergencies, EMS and local law enforcement agencies can encourage community members to volunteer to register information about mental health or even other physical health issues in their household.

By notifying the authorities of any pre-existing medical conditions, including mental illness, community members give responders a head start in dealing with emergencies that involve specific people. Security officers can call in professionals who may already have a relationship with the person in crisis and implement tailor-made de-escalation methods.

In addition, studies have shown 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-aiders with information about their mental health or that of their loved ones.”

Bottom line: don’t hesitate to proactively gather information or ask for more engagement from community members. The more reliable your information, the easier it is to make decisions in an emergency. It’s also important to remember that public outreach and community engagement must be done regularly throughout the year.

3. All first responder agencies can have a positive impact on the community

Security is an ecosystem and the public’s perception and willingness to make positive contributions to public safety is influenced by daily public engagement. Whether police, fire brigade or rescue service, every stakeholder has the opportunity to use their time in front of the public to take and improve the continuous emergency measures.

Frequent emergency services users are some of the best places to start engaging and gathering additional information that can then be used in the next response – or better yet, to avoid unnecessary responses or allow alternative responses that are relevant to the incident and the individual are better suited.

Presence and initiative are 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 deal with mental illness. A few simple changes will go a long way in strengthening relationships with members of the community and protecting those who might get caught in an emergency.

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