Before It Gets Better: DSS Tool Gives First Responders Ways to Help Mental Health Crises

Last Updated by Gary Ellenbolt on

Those with careers in law enforcement, or who serve as probation officers or first responders, are trained early in their careers to be ready for anything.  In cases that involve dealing with someone with behavioral health difficulties, it can be difficult to figure out what to be ready for.  The South Dakota Department of Social Services offers a manual that serves as a road map for dealing with those sorts of crises.  

For the sake of patients, their families, and those who take care of them on a short-term basis, issues with behavioral health must be diagnosed and handled immediately.  Perhaps it’s a police officer called to a home or dorm room—maybe someone with a small-town ambulance service handling someone who has not taken medication for a few days.  It’s pretty obvious—seconds count, and being wrong could be disastrous.  The State Department of Social Services has a study guide that those who come to the rescue can utilize to determine their best course of action.  Tiffany Wolfgang directs the D-S-S Division of Behavioral Health.  It is responsible for all public behavioral health efforts in the state. 

“Well," Wolfgang says, "the Behavioral Health Quick Reference Guide was originally put together for those folks who are working in the justice field, who have interactions with individuals who may have a behavioral health disorder.  So maybe probation officers, judges, those kinds of individuals—so they would have a quick reference guide as to ‘How do I help my client?’ ‘How do I make a referral?’  ‘How do I access services?’”

Wolfgang says the term “behavioral health,” brings images  of several emotional disorders that affect the brain.  Wolfgang says that’s only part of it.

Wolfgang says, “We look at overall mental health—we look at behavioral health issues, substance use disorders—those kinds of issues that people are struggling with.”

The guide covers those addicted to alcohol or other substances, along with people suffering from medical disorders.  Wolfgang says the guide tells professionals what to look for, or whom to call, in a hurry—page 17 breaks it down quickly in the form of a flow chart.

“And that flow chart is really specific to probation officers and parole agents who are kind of, through their assessment process.  They both have some assessments that they do to determine the flow of services that should be appropriate or could be appropriate.”

According to Wolfgang, the reference guide is meant to introduce new professionals in law enforcement or the judicial system to what’s out there, and what to do in a hurry.  She says there’s another way for police officers to learn more on the subject—a Mental Health First Aid Training Program.

“The mental health first aid is actually a nationally-known model we have folks trained in—and then they, in turn, can train individuals in law enforcement.  It’s similar to when you go to first-aid training, CPR training—it’s providing you that basic level of understanding what people may be experiencing when they’re in a crisis.  And then, some skills and tools that you can do if you’re that person encountering that person in crisis.”

And if that professional wants advanced information, Wolfgang points the way.

“I would encourage them if they’re in law enforcement—to definitely reach out to the law enforcement academy that’s operated through DCI; they really serve as that central hub for law enforcement training.  Folks could certainly give our office a call and we can navigate the resources that are available.”

With one in five adults in the U-S struggling with a mental disorder, and one in ten dealing with substance abuse—it won’t take long before they need serious help, and the first responder will serve as the first line of defense.  Wolfgang and all behavioral health practitioners emphasize if someone wants the help, it’s available, and recovery is possible.  

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