Coronavirus, Mental Health, and the Enduring Importance of Health-Centered Crisis Response

Jackson Beck Senior Program Associate // Leah Pope Former Senior Research Fellow
May 28, 2020

The novel coronavirus and efforts to contain it have brought about seismic life changes—including the loss of lives and livelihoods—known to lead to mental health crises, and some police departments, like those in Dayton, Ohio and Portland, Oregon, have reported an uptick in mental health-related calls for service. This Mental Health Month, as the virus and its already devastating impacts spotlight the importance of flattening the mental health curve, communities must revisit how their police departments respond to people with mental illness.

With support from the NFL Foundation, Vera’s Serving Safely initiative promotes crisis response programs that connect people in crisis to community-based services while minimizing involvement with police and the criminal justice system. In today’s fraught environment, however, vital social distancing efforts deprive people of traditional supports and services while creating new considerations for first responders, particularly in communities facing increased mental health calls.

Such an uptick presents communities with the challenge of safely resolving these situations while minimizing unnecessary contact that might spread the virus. Police agencies across the country have adopted new response protocols to prevent viral spread, including measures to reduce custodial arrests and broader efforts to limit interactions between officers and community members. With the New York Times reporting that correctional facilities are among the most significant coronavirus “clusters” in the country, decarceration efforts remain urgent and require that police prioritize public health in their role as system gatekeepers. Police responses to mental health calls are thus complicated by social distancing demands, personal protective equipment shortages, and overarching concerns about where and how to safely provide people in crisis with the care they need.

The Interplay of Policing and Mental Health in a Pandemic

The role of police in responding to people with mental illness has never been straightforward, and the public health imperative that police shrink their footprint where safe and appropriate isn’t new. Still, coronavirus presents communities with good reason to revisit their responses anew. Communities across the country have pursued a wide variety of approaches, often simultaneously, to reduce justice system contact and improve health outcomes. These include:

  • Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs built on strong partnerships among first responder agencies and intensive training for participating officers;
  • Co-responder teams that embed mental health clinicians with responding police officers; and
  • Mobile crisis teams (MCTs) of mental health professionals, who sometimes partner with police to identify calls they can safely handle as first responders, enabling them to deliver health-based interventions and facilitate service connections without police involvement.

By exploring new approaches and strengthening those they have in place, communities can decrease the likelihood that people in crisis end up in jails or crowded emergency rooms.

In addition to refining in-person approaches, communities should consider investing in and promoting the use of non-emergency lines that reduce in-person contact while providing callers with the human interaction they might seek out during a crisis.

  • Warmlines, typically staffed by peers who share the experience of living with mental illness, can provide callers with support and a listening ear, as well as information about local mental health resources.
  • Communities might also explore approaches like Houston’s Crisis Call Diversion Program, in which 911 dispatchers divert non-emergency mental health-related calls to phone counselors.

Efforts like these have the potential to save money and reduce the need for an on-scene police presence.

Supporting Essential Crisis Response Workers

Current events also underline the critical importance of enhancing crisis responses to protect essential workers. Health care professionals fight the uphill battle of saving lives with limited testing, hospital beds, and personal protective equipment, putting themselves at great risk for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Likewise, first responders already operating under stress are now confronting additional stressors, including an increased risk of exposure that makes them more likely to become vectors of transmission themselves. They describe feelings of hopelessness and uncertainty as they navigate obstacles in carrying out their jobs and struggle to mitigate a crisis that is far from over.

Communities can support the health of these workers and people seeking help with approaches to mental health calls that minimize human contact in non-emergency situations, direct people with serious mental illness toward appropriate medical settings, and reduce the excessive, increasingly dangerous use of jails.

Beyond its peaks, coronavirus may leave a lasting footprint on people’s mental health, particularly for those most impacted by the crisis. As communities grapple with how to do more with less amid potential revenue shortfalls, they should prioritize community-based supports and services for people with mental illness. Law enforcement agencies can resolve to do the same. As they continue to adapt to the current moment’s most immediate challenges, police departments have the opportunity to reimagine their role in crisis response and champion lasting changes for a health-first approach.