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Police could be helped by virtual counselors in crisis calls

January 21, 2020 GMT

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A shortage of mental health professionals in South Dakota, especially in rural areas, could be addressed by having trained counselors remotely assist police officers using readily available technology, lawmakers said Tuesday.

Lawmakers are considering a package of eight bills this year aimed at addressing shortfalls in mental health care in South Dakota that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, has the seventh highest suicide rate in the nation.

In one possible solution, a police officer responding to someone suffering a mental health crisis could use a tablet to make a video call with someone trained in de-escalating mental crises.

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“This is like a mental health ambulance coming virtually into the home,” Sen. Deb Soholt, a Sioux Falls Republican, said at a House committee meeting.

Senate Majority Leader Kris Langer, a Dell Rapids Republican, said the lack of mental health care is especially acute in rural areas and among people who work in agriculture. The state also has a shortage of mental health professionals.

Langer said the push to increase mental health care in rural areas has broad support.

One of the bills that cleared the House Health and Human Services committee on Tuesday would make it possible for virtual mental health care providers to write prescriptions on their first video call. The other bills are either awaiting a committee hearing or have not yet been introduced.

The bills will need to clear both houses of the Legislature and be signed by Gov. Kristi Noem to become law.

Noem supports the initiative, according to her spokeswoman Kristin Wileman.

“With shortages in the behavioral health workforce, maximizing technology is critical to meeting the needs of South Dakotans in rural and remote areas,” Wileman said in a statement.

A police officer responding to a call for someone in a crisis currently has limited options. They can leave the person at home if they don’t think they are at risk of harming themselves or others, or they can take them into the office for a meeting with a counselor, then drive them back home.

That all takes time, Brookings County Sheriff Deputy Bart Sweebe said.

Under a pilot program started three weeks ago, Sweebe’s deputies now have help. They respond to mental health calls armed with tablets that connect them to a counselor from Avera’s Behavioral Health Center in Sioux Falls.

“Sometimes, if you can get that person help quicker and get them talking to someone quicker, you see better results,” Sweebe said.

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Sweebe said counseling via video keeps people in their homes where they are often more comfortable. It also allows the counselor to de-escalate the situation and determine the next steps.

The video counselor could also help determine if the person should be taken to a mental health facility.

Lawmakers would like the Brookings County pilot program to be made available statewide.

Soholt said it could take years to expand the program and figure out how to fund it. The latest legislation includes provisions for the program to be covered by insurance, but it would take philanthropic, state, and municipal funding — plus the expansion of broadband to rural areas — to get a statewide system in place, she said.