By Akshay Birla
When people in the midst of a mental health crisis are not in a safe environment, they may act out in ways that require police intervention. As a result, people with mental health problems often encounter law enforcement officials before or instead of mental health services better equipped to handle them.
Without access to mental health professionals, police officers are often unable to help these individuals, some of whom may be incarcerated as a result. This, in turn, is a poor use of valuable law enforcement resources. As a case in point, Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 43% of people incarcerated in state prisons have a mental illness, straining the limited capacity of detention facilities.
To ensure that people with mental health problems receive the care they need, communication between law enforcement and mental health services must be a top priority. While acknowledging the importance of enhanced collaboration is the first step, implementing it at scale requires leadership, technology and continuous process improvement.
Mental health care: The challenges of closing the coverage gap
In order to improve the response to mental health incidents, there are several barriers in the health care system that need to be overcome.
The first is the general lack of hospital beds and outpatient mental health care services. The United States is “facing an urgent and growing shortage of psychiatric beds,” according to a new study in JAMA Psychiatry. The report notes that hundreds of patients in Massachusetts are on waiting lists for available beds, while over a thousand people in California who have been found mentally incompetent to stand trial are currently being housed in correctional facilities.
Furthermore, these figures are only calculated for people whose information is already stored in the waiting list databases. Finding a facility capable of even a cursory assessment can be challenging for police officers responding to a call involving a person with mental health difficulties.
The mental health training that police officers receive also varies greatly from one jurisdiction to another. Some police academies offer extensive instruction on how to deal with people who have mental health problems, while others pay much less attention to the subject.
Another obstacle is that, in many circumstances, police departments lack centralized and efficient means of communicating with local health agencies. This means that even if officers believe an individual needs mental health services, it can be time-consuming and difficult to connect with facilities in the region and ascertain whether there is space available for patients. Although many state and municipal agencies have internal communication mechanisms, coordination between agencies is often ineffective.
Coordination in mental health services
Better communication and collaboration between the police and mental health services would be universally beneficial.
Mental health practitioners have the best chance of successfully helping patients during or immediately after a mental health crisis and developing plans to mitigate subsequent episodes.
If individuals can be assessed and treated before they are arrested or sentenced, jurisdictions can alleviate some of the burden facing law enforcement and prison systems.
Finally, community well-being would be improved if simpler and more compassionate systems were put in place to support vulnerable individuals, while also allocating public funds wisely.
Rather than withholding arrest or incarceration, police forces would be better served by establishing direct relationships with mental health facilities. Connecting with mental health facilities and finding the best fit for the patient saves time and energy that would otherwise be spent on other law enforcement activities.
However, this requires cooperation between many stakeholders. For example, when an officer decides that an individual needs to be connected to mental health services, there is no guarantee that there will be a bed available at a local mental health facility, even if police officers are familiar with to. As a result, police officers may have to wait long periods of time with patients before they can be safely transferred to the care of mental health professionals, effectively reducing the number of officers available to respond to other incidents.
Data sharing between law enforcement and mental health
Coordination between key internal and external actors in the public and private sectors is essential for effective emergency management. A well-designed program that appropriately classifies individuals should facilitate interaction between participants, exchange of relevant data, and coordination of tasks. With an incident management and response platform, departments can:
- Connect different data sources: Police departments and healthcare professionals both use their own industry-specific terms. Incident management and response technologies address this issue head-on by putting the spotlight where it belongs—on the mission objective of quickly, efficiently and professionally directing individuals to the right resource. Using a common vocabulary created by many actors can help the parties reach an agreement more quickly.
Almost every health system, government agency, and police department operates with different systems and workflows. With a coordinated incident management platform, separate workflow solutions can be connected to support the exchange of information between police officers, dispatchers and healthcare professionals. In this way, stakeholders can easily share relevant information such as bed availability data to quickly find the care needed for someone experiencing a mental health crisis.
- Share information between jurisdictions: Using a centralized incident management and response platform, law enforcement and mental health organizations can share information across jurisdictional boundaries and find resources such as beds or specialists. If police officers have responded to a call about a person in distress and have concluded that the person requires specialized treatment, they will be able to save time and resources by contacting a nearby hospital in a neighboring state, county or municipality that has space when all local hospitals are full.
- Show return on investment: Using modern emergency workflow technology, state and local governments can easily share critical data with all key stakeholders. Instead of piecing together separate data sources piecemeal to show value, a web-based information management platform enables law enforcement to easily group data from a variety of separate sources into one intuitive dashboard. This demonstrates ROI by reallocating law enforcement time to more productive uses and connecting individuals to appropriate resources faster, thereby garnering support for additional investment and further improving collaboration between police and mental health resources.
Commitment to data sharing for patient safety
Mental health professionals can connect with patients who are actively enduring or have recently experienced a mental health crisis through web-based solutions that improve communication and information sharing. Rather than using arrest or imprisonment, police often find that making direct contact with mental health services is the most effective way to resolve incidents involving vulnerable individuals.
Agencies can improve teamwork and communication across jurisdictions without compromising sensitive patient information by using cloud-based emergency management software.
Enhanced collaboration between mental health professionals and law enforcement through secure information sharing platforms can increase patient safety and facilitate more efficient use of available resources, benefiting everyone in the community.
About the Author
Akshay Birla is vice president and chief marketing officer at To help you, a provider of emergency management solutions for public and private organizations committed to optimizing their resilience strategies. He previously headed Juvare’s Public Health and Healthcare vertical. Juvare’s solutions are used in a wide range of industries, including healthcare, aviation, education and utilities, as well as state and local governments, federal agencies and government defense organizations.