$1 million donation to boost South Dakota’s mental health response options

The Virtual Crisis Care program allows mental health professionals to talk directly with law enforcement during a crisis.
The Virtual Crisis Care program allows mental health professionals to talk directly with law enforcement during a crisis.(Avera Health)
Published: Jul. 30, 2020 at 10:37 AM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - A major donation is set to provide South Dakota law enforcement and court service officers with better access to mental health expertise in the midst of a crisis.

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust donated $1 million in funding for the state’s Virtual Crisis Care pilot program.

Under the Virtual Crisis Care pilot program, mental health professionals will assist law enforcement and court services officers in 23 counties in their ability to de-escalate, assess, and stabilize those in a crisis and arrange for their follow-up care with local community mental health centers.

“If we could give access to mental health expertise to professionals throughout the system from attorneys to judges, it could revolutionize the South Dakota criminal justice system,” said South Dakota Chief Justice David Gilbertson.

According to Avera Health, more than 60 percent of rural Americans live in areas with a shortage of mental health professionals. At the same time, they must deal with the ongoing challenges of a fluctuating agricultural economy, increasing rural drug abuse, and now the isolation brought on by COVID-19.

Many urban areas across the country have used mobile crisis teams, which include in-person behavioral health professionals, to assist law enforcement in heading off unnecessary visits to emergency rooms or mental health hospitals. Last year in Minnehaha County, in cases where the mobile crisis team responded, nine of every 10 people were able to stay home rather than require a higher level of care.

Despite the effectiveness of mobile programs, only the South Dakota counties of Minnehaha and Hughes operate them. The goal of the pilot is to prove the feasibility of inserting technology into the mobile crisis model so the benefits can be extended statewide.

Under the program, law enforcement or probation officers in the field can call the crisis response team at Avera eCARE to request a safety assessment. Officers then provide the person needing help with a tablet for a video session. Once the crisis response team completes the assessment and communicates with law enforcement, they work to establish follow-up care with the local community mental health center.

The pilot program runs through June 2021.

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