Social workers help address emergency calls

People contemplating suicide, suffering from depression or experiencing severe panic attacks may call 911 to get help. But the sergeant of the Cheyenne Police Department in Wyoming says police officers may not fully be prepared or trained to deal with a mental health situation.

“Police officers are trained to find immediate solutions to a problem,” said Sgt. Stephanie Neuman, an NASW member with an MSW. “But in dealing with mental health emergencies, police officers don’t always know what to look for … communities deserve to have social workers address what the police officers can’t find.”

Some communities have recognized that it takes more skill to address these types of calls, so mobile crisis centers staffed with social workers have been linked to local police departments to help expedite 911 mental health emergency calls.

In Nashville, Tenn., the Mental Health Cooperative Mobile Crisis Center partnered with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department more than 17 years ago to have 911 mental health emergency calls received by trained professionals.

According to Amanda Myatt, LCSW, and director of Emergency Psychiatric Services at the Mobile Crisis Center, the staff consists of 35 to 40 people who are either LCSWs or have a background in social work. The center addresses up to 5,000 mental health emergency calls a month and also handles an average of 500 face-to-face “calls” a month, where help is offered in person at the center’s walk-in facility or triage center.

Nashville police officers have the option to refer a 911 mental health call directly to the center or escort the person to the walk-in facility.

“Within an hour of someone calling 911 for a mental health emergency, a caller (in Nashville) can get help from us either over the phone or in person,” Myatt said.

Jay Auslander, director of emergency services at the Project Respond Mobile Mental Health Crisis Response Team Multnomah County Call Center, in Oregon, said a third of the calls received there are routed from law enforcement, and the center has partnered with police departments in surrounding counties since 1994.

“We have the resources to help someone in a mental health emergency that a police officer may not,” Auslander said. “Our center is staffed 24/7 with professionals who are LCSWs or who hold MSWs. We work with the local police to get mental health emergency calls addressed quickly, and perform assessments so that the caller gets the help that they need. We hope to put them on a path to recovery.”

Individual callers can contact the crisis center directly, says Auslander, and not go through 911. They can also stop by to have an emergency session with a counselor to get help immediately.

The crisis centers also have training sessions for police officers on an ongoing basis to help them better identify someone who is experiencing a true mental health emergency.

“The key things in training the officers to deal with mental health emergencies is to teach them to ask the right questions and get a history of demographics,” Myatt said. “And there are other things we can show officers to put them in the shoes of a caller. For example, someone experiencing a psychotic disorder will get overwhelmed by too much questioning. So we have simulated auditory hallucinations headphones for officers to wear during training so they get an idea of what the person is experiencing - lots of different voices going on at the same time, and how it makes them feel to have another person ask questions on top of that.”

At the end of the day, just having someone to talk them through their current state is what callers often need, Myatt said. “Few cases actually warrant a crisis consult. Most of the time, they just want someone to talk to and to give them resources.”

Neuman said joining the police force as a trained social worker gave her the necessary tools to handle mental health emergency calls on the spot.

“As a patrol officer, I would often be sent to address suicide and mental health issue calls,” Neuman said. “Being a social worker, I could rely on my social work background to assess the situation and apply the social work skills that I had been taught. Often, all that was needed was to direct the caller to the right resources, which, being a social worker, I knew about.”