Eye on KELOLAND: A connection during crisis


Many rural Americans are living in areas with a shortage of mental health professionals.

A program at work right now in South Dakota is getting people the right level of care sooner.

Wherever Clay County Chief Deputy Paul Pederson goes in his patrol vehicle, an electronic tablet is just within an arm’s reach.

It’s a device for someone who’s in crisis.

In fact, he used it recently to assist Vermillion Police on a call.

“Saw kind of some of the things he said, thought this is the perfect opportunity, grabbed the iPad and straight up, ‘Hey do you want to talk to a counselor right now?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I’d love to,'” Clay County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Paul Pederson said.

That’s right.

The tablet allows someone in crisis to talk with a mental health professional at Avera eCare.

“If the person was in crisis right here in this intersection; they were suicidal here thinking of jumping into that intersection, I could have them sit in my car and, ‘Hey, let’s talk to this counselor.’ We can do it right here,” Pederson said.

In the case of the Vermillion call, Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe says the patient voluntarily checked in to an inpatient facility because of the conversation over the tablet.

“That prevented us from having to bring that person into the county jail to be held pending an evaluation by a qualified mental health professional and then possibly be sent home again or be committed to HSC, so I think that was the whole goal of this sort of effort,” Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe said.

It’s called the Virtual Crisis Care Program, and it’s currently available in several counties thanks to $1 million in pilot funding from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

“A lot of times in these small communities they don’t have the resources to deal with this type of problem and these folks end up sitting in jail while they’re waiting for transportation to human services at Yankton or to Sioux Falls behavioral health or Rapid City behavioral health. I can’t imagine going to jail for a medical crisis. This would be like going, sitting in jail for a heart attack or anything like that,” The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust Trustee Walter Panzirer said.

The program is designed to help people receive only the level of care they need.

“A lot of times, we can de-escalate the situation instead of increasing the escalation by taking them into the back of a police car and taking them to the emergency department. Now that individual has the opportunity to stay home when it’s safe and then also not have to do the extra healthcare costs associated with that. And on top of that there’s a lot of savings for law enforcement. They don’t have to do the transportation, spend many hours away from their local communities where they’re covering for their normal law enforcement duties,” Avera eCare Clinical Officer Brian Erickson said.

Not only will the program assist law enforcement officers, but also court services officers.

Before the end of the month it will serve 23 South Dakota counties.

While this program is in the pilot phase right now, the hope is that it will expand in the state someday.

“We’re hoping it’s budget neutral to budget positive for the state and then the state will come in after this and see the value of this program and continue it,” Panzirer said.

But for now, more people behind the badge have one more way of helping the communities they serve.

“Knowing that this is just another tool in the tool box to help them get help and them and their families and those types of things, it makes you feel good. It makes you know that you are helping the community,” Pederson said.

Other partners in the program include the South Dakota Unified Justice System, the South Dakota Sheriff’s Association, and community mental health centers.

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