Grant helps state launch rural mental health pilot program

By: - June 29, 2022 1:02 pm

Three million Nevadans, or about 94.4% of the state’s population live in a federally designated mental health professional shortage area, but that percentage jumps to 100% in the state’s rural and frontier counties. (Photo courtesy Helmsley Charitable Trust)

The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services launched a new virtual mental and behavioral health pilot program Wednesday with 11 law enforcement agencies in the state through a $3.8 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. 

There are 3.1 million people across Nevada spread over 110,567 square miles, which “adds a unique challenge” for providing coordinated behavioral health services in rural counties, Gov. Steve Sisolak said. “Challenges include lack of access to providers, timeliness of crisis response and barriers of transportation to access services.” 

The three year Virtual Crisis Care program aims to help reduce the burden on law enforcement in rural and frontier counties in the state by connecting people with virtual telehealth experts.

Three million Nevadans, or about 94.4% of the state’s population live in a federally designated mental health professional shortage area, but that percentage jumps to 100% in the state’s rural and frontier counties, according to University of Nevada Reno’s 2021 Nevada Rural and Frontier Health DataBook

But about 20% of those living in rural and frontier counties struggled with mental illness in the past year, according to the data book. 

The Virtual Crisis Care program will work seamlessly with Nevada’s new 988 crisis care behavioral health care system to help address rural access to mental health care, Walter Panzirer, a trustee with the Helmsley Charitable Trust, said. 

Law enforcement officers in the field will be able to use the iPads to call Avel eCare, the telemedicine care providers firm chosen through open bid in Nevada, to help with a safety assessment. Then, the officers can provide a tablet to the person in crisis for video calls and will coordinate with law enforcement on follow-care with local mental and behavioral health resources and divert them away from the criminal justice system

“Officers are being asked to do things we were never trained to do, we were trained to do law enforcement,” Lincoln County Sheriff Kerry Lee said. “In my 33 years, I’ve seen the mental health calls we’ve been responding to increase more and more and more and we are seeing more in our jails and these people don’t belong in our jails.” 

The broadband access gap is great in rural Nevada, according to the 2020 Broadband Whole Community Connectivity Report by the Governor’s Office of Science, Innovation & Technology.

If there are connection issues in rural and frontier counties, officers who use the Virtual Crisis Care program will have to deescalate the situation and move the individual to a better service area, Panzirer said. 

On June 21, Nevada Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee approved the first $1.3 million installment of the grant for the program and will approve various amounts over the next three years, Panzirer said. 

Officers in the 11 counties will begin training in July which will include de-escalation training from Avel eCare on the crisis intervention training many law enforcement agencies receive, he said. 

The pilot program will be based off of the South Dakota program that launched a three year program in 2019, which ends this year. The first year focused on training and distribution, metrics, and device management, and the second and third years focused on performance improvement to local law enforcement. 

Participating law agencies include the Carson City, Eureka County, Humboldt County, Lander County, Lincoln County, Washoe County and White Pine County Sheriff’s Offices and the Elko Police Department, the Mesquite Police Department, the West Wendover Police Department, and the Winnemucca Police Department.

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Camalot Todd
Camalot Todd

An award-winning, investigative and enterprise reporter, Camalot Todd has over seven years experience in print, digital, radio and TV journalism.