A statewide effort to expand mental health services to Virginians is driving changes to the way telephone numbers are dialed.
J.R. Powell, Jr., director of the Martinsville-Henry County 911 Center, recently detailed the changes to members of Martinsville City Council.
In July, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “adopted 988 across the nation as the 3-digit number for any citizen in the U.S. dealing with a mental health crisis, behavior health crisis” or who may need suicide prevention assistance, Powell said.
A side effect of this effort, Powell said, is that residents must remember to dial the applicable area code (276 locally) when placing a local call.
The need for mental health-specific call centers stems from the recognition that a different kind of response is sometimes needed for a mental health crisis than is provided by the traditional 911 call center, Powell said.
“Across the nation, we’ve heard of cases of citizens who are dealing with mental health crises and behavior health crises,” Powell said, and added that when 911 is called, “the response in just about every jurisdiction is to send a police officer to find out what’s going on.”
However, “we’ve found out that that’s not always the best answer,” he said, and explained that a law enforcement vehicle, uniform, firearm “can trigger someone who’s dealing with a mental health crisis and cause the situation to spiral very quickly.”
Powell recounted the story of Marcus-David Peters, a Richmond area teacher, who was experiencing a mental health crisis when killed by authorities.
When the incident occurred, authorities were responding to a 911 call from Peters’ coworkers, who were unaware of any mental health issues Peters may have had, Powell said. Initially, non-lethal force was used to subdue Peters, but the situation escalated and resulted in Peters’ death.
As the new 988 call centers are being established, Powell said that Gov. Ralph Northam required localities create a way through which 911 centers could be made aware of residents who may have behavioral issues, mental health issues, brain injuries, “or anything that could affect the way they’re thinking.”
Then, if they or a family member dials 911, or if an officer encounters a person and runs their name through a database, “we are aware that this person has a mental health issue or may be having a crisis,” Powell said.
As a result, the local 911 center has created a voluntary, completely confidential database, called the Marcus Alert, where residents can provide information about themselves or someone in their care, including the name, associated phone numbers and address. The database is accessible to residents through both Martinsville and Henry County’s official websites, Powell said.
The database will note those details if 911 is called “so we can provide that information to responders—police, fire, or rescue” to let them know they may be encountering someone with “a mental health issue, behavior health issue, developmental or intellectual disability, or brain injury,” Powell said.
“It’s completely confidential,” Powell said, adding that the database was created by in-house IT staff. An outside company is not used to store the data. Only Powell and the center’s deputy director can access the information.
“It’s very helpful for a police officer to know ahead of time if a citizen has a mental health issue or disability,” Powell said, and added that some residents are already providing information.
The legislation includes a requirement that a child’s birthdate must be included when a parent fills out an entry for their child, Powell said. When the child turns 18, the information will be removed from the voluntary database unless the person decides to remain, or if their legal guardian has documentation requiring that they remain in the program.
Much work remains to get the 988 call centers established within a short timeframe, Powell said, and added centers must be established across all five regions of the Department of Behavior, Health, and Development Services (DBHDS), which is working with the Department of Criminal Justice Services to lay the foundation of what is expected with the creation of these centers.
Part of the effort includes working with local law enforcement and 911 centers in each locality to explain and help establish community care teams, which will be charged with responding to mental health crises, he said.
Teams are defined as “mental health service providers that may include registered peer recovery specialists and law enforcement officers as a team with a mental health service provider leading the team to help stabilize a citizen involved in a mental health crisis,” Powell said.
For the 988 number to work nationwide, companies that provide phone service to transfer any 988 calls to either the national 988 hotline or the state’s 988 line, once established. In Virginia, he said, there are 2 area codes—276 and 804—that, in some locations, use 988 as a prefix. To prevent local calls from being transferred to the crisis hotline, residents will now have to dial the correct area code when placing calls.
Powell said the new call centers must be established in Virginia by July 1, 2023. Discussions are ongoing about where the nearest will be, but the Salem/Roanoke area is a possibility. Regardless of location, “it’s definitely going to help our law enforcement officers once it’s in place.”