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Howard County Times
Howard County

Howard County announces new program to address mental health needs during 911 calls

Howard County government officials announced a new partnership between the Howard County Police Department and Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center to defer nonemergency mental health 911 calls to counselors.

The program, set to begin July 1, follows similar efforts launched in Baltimore city and county.

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Through the new program, known as Communications Initiated Referral to Crisis, or CIRC, dispatchers will divert certain calls to certified crisis hotlines run by Grassroots. These calls will need to meet certain criteria before being transferred, including that the caller does not present any immediate harm to themselves or others.

“If the answers to those protocol questions indicate a person is not in danger and may benefit from talking through their crisis, dispatchers now have another option — they can forward that caller directly to the mental health professionals at Grassroots for the most appropriate level of care,” Police Chief Lisa Meyers at a news conference Thursday at Grassroots’ headquarters in Columbia.

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Grassroots, a nonprofit organization that provides access to behavioral health, crisis and homeless services for individuals and families, has a trained team of hotline workers who are skilled in handling calls with those in crisis and providing quick access to services.

The program comes on the heels of the coronavirus pandemic during which 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use disorder last summer.

According to the county, Howard dispatchers received approximately 1,789 calls for service that involved a behavioral or mental health issue in 2020.

“I can confidently say that over the last 15 or so months, this space [Grassroots] has been vital for our community,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball said at the news conference. “During the past year, many of our residents and neighbors have experience isolation, depression [and] anguish while our world has faced this deadly pandemic.”

Ball said there are some non-emergency situations that can be handled without police response on the scene.

“Every day people are experiencing mental health challenges in our community and they call 911 in search of help and support in a crisis,” Ball said. “When there is not an immediate safety issue, many of these callers, our neighbors, would be best supported by being directly connected with mental health professionals instead of police response.”

Criteria for transferring a call to the Grassroots line include eliminating that the person presents any immediate harm to themselves or others, gives any indication they possess or have immediate access to a weapon or other means of immediate harm, indicates the presence of a plan, is under 18 years of age, or indicates any use of drugs or alcohol.

Myers said currently within the police department there is an entire department assigned full-time to oversee mental health coordination and follow up on resource assistance.

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“Sometimes a person in crisis may not need a police officer, but instead they may need to talk directly to a mental health professional who can help them resolve the issues at hand,” Myers said.

Mariana Izraelson, executive director of Grassroots, said the new program enhances existing collaboration to better provide mental health services.

“It represents the latest revision in protocols to incorporate best practices that improve performance outcomes by maximizing resources through increased communication and cooperation,” Izraelson said.


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