See the ‘game changer’ working to better answer 911 mental health calls

A first-of-its-kind program funded by EHF hopes to better connect families to mental health help and eliminate the costly need for Houston police officers to respond.

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It’s just after 9 am on a Monday and a Houston father calls 9-1-1.  But there’s no injury or crime in progress. Instead, the father wants help because his teenage son won’t go to school.

“The father spoke in Spanish and said he just didn’t know what else to do,” says Angelica, a Crisis Call Diversion phone counselor. 

Instead of sending a police officer to the home, Angelica is able to offer a new kind of help. She provides a referral over the phone to a bilingual mental health counselor who can help the family work out the truancy problem in an entirely new, hopefully long-lasting way.

“He seemed relieved to have some option for help other than the police,” Angelica said.

Angelica isn’t a 911 operator.  She’s actually a professional mental health phone counselor. She’s part of a pilot program called the Crisis Call Diversion project (CCD).

CCD is a collaboration between the Houston Police Department, the Houston Emergency Communications Center and The Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD (formerly MHMRA of Harris County). The project’s goal is to divert certain non-criminal, non-emergency mental health calls to a trained phone counselor. That way, the counselor can assess the mental health care best suited for the situation and avoid the need for police officers to respond.

“Too many people are using the 911 system for issues other than a true need for law enforcement,” said Captain Wendy Baimbridge, leader of HPD’s Mental Health Division. “It’s a national problem. We’re hoping to build a better system in Houston.”

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 2.47.35 PM.pngIn 2015, Baimbridge says more than 11,000 calls to Houston’s 911 center were related to mental health or behavioral problems and didn’t require intervention by a police officer. However, because no phone counselors were available at the time of the call to 911, an HPD officer had to be sent to the scene every time. That is not an efficient or effective use of officers’ time and takes a toll on HPD’s budget.   

At the same time, The Harris Center was unaware when its current mental health clients were calling 911 or how often. There was no way for counselors to know they were needed to intervene. 

Together, those problems sparked the idea for the CCD project. But tight city budgets meant there were no city funds available to test the new idea that may or may not provide an immediate return on the investment.

That’s where EHF stepped in to help. Last year, EHF and Houston Endowment dedicated more than $800,000 to jointly fund the two-year CCD pilot project.

“Our role as a philanthropy is to provide at-risk, start-up capital,” said Jo Carcedo, EHF’s VP for Grants. “Government funds then take over to sustain the program.  This is a ‘game changer’ that can fundamentally change the way government does business.”

The CCD project is a bold effort to create a more efficient and effective system of care for those with mental health needs. Savings for HPD accrue as the number of police officers who would otherwise be dispatched to handle these mental health calls decreases.

“The investment from private philanthropy is giving us the time we need to prove the system can work,” said Jennifer Battle, HelpLine Director at The Harris Center.

Since the program began in March, HPD officers, The Harris Center phone counselors, agency program administrators and data analysts have been on the job building a blueprint for the new system. The blueprint includes an extensive training manual, operational guidelines, a policies and procedure manual, and analyzing mountains of call data.  

“We’re having to build everything from the bottom up,” said Battle. “There is no other program like this in the country.”

“We’re quickly realizing what works and what doesn’t,” said Doug Anders, Senior Officer and HPD Special Projects Liaison.

The CCD team is also discovering success isn’t always measured by not sending an officer to the scene. Many times, officers still may need to respond. But because phone counselors are involved, the officers’ time spent on the scene is much shorter and more effective.  Data analysts are looking to see how the time difference may affect HPD’s bottom line.

“We have the passion to see this program through and ensure that it’s a success,” Baimbridge said. “We’re hoping to build a better service for the public that’s also less expensive for the taxpayer.”

The project also hopes to prove the system will be much better for those who call in for help.  By offering an immediate mental health assessment and follow-up consultations with counselors, the CCD project is designed to personally connect callers with needed help.  The new system also allows The Harris Center to engage with current clients who are calling 911 and provide additional continuity of care and follow-up assistance.

“It’s a much different level of service,” Battle said. “It’s a system that will help provide a clearer picture of what’s going on in that person’s life and give them an opportunity to permanently link to counselors and other assistance.”

So far, CCD phone counselors have been primarily working during the day shift at Houston’s 911 call center. This month, the team will add phone counselors to the evening shift. Team leaders say the plan is to have the project in full operation by the beginning of 2017.

“Every day we’re moving on to the next step in testing, developing and refining the CCD concept,” Battle said. “It’s going to be a system changer for sure.”