A two-lane road runs through the Nevada desert with mountains in the distance

On June 29, Nevada announced a crisis response pilot program designed to address gaps in services in rural areas of the state and divert people with mental health needs from the justice system.

With funding from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Virtual Crisis Care program will enable frontline law enforcement officers in 11 agencies to provide immediate telehealth services to people in crisis.

With limited behavioral health resources in rural areas, law enforcement officers are often the first and only responders to mental health crises. Yet officers are do not always have the tools, training, or support to respond effectively.

I expect this program will help fill a critical gap.” —Nevada House Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager

Some people who experience a mental health crisis may become involved in the justice system due to unmet treatment needs. In fact, a 2019 report by the Nevada Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice found that the number of people entering prison with mental health needs grew 35% in a decade, and more than half of women entering prison in 2017 had such needs.

The Virtual Crisis Care program will equip officers with iPads that connect to behavioral health specialists. Officers responding to a crisis will connect people via tablet for immediate de-escalation, stabilization, and assessment. Following the crisis, the telehealth provider will connect the person with local service providers to coordinate a plan that provides appropriate care and follow-up.

“Providing access to mental health care for all Nevadans is a priority, and being able to work with our law enforcement partners to equip them with the tools and make sure that happens is a major step forward,” said Misty Vaughan Allen, Nevada’s state suicide prevention coordinator. “This new telehealth option will allow immediate, on-site assistance to anyone in crisis.”

Nevada’s effort is modelled after the Virtual Crisis Care pilot program in South Dakota, launched in 2019, which CJI helped to design and implement with state stakeholders, Helmsley, and a telehealth provider. In the first 18 months of the program, 80% of people in crisis were diverted from involuntary hospitalization or jail, and the program has since expanded to additional police and sheriffs’ departments.

Working in Nevada on the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, CJI recognized that the two states faced similar challenges responding to mental health crises in vast rural areas. Given the success of South Dakota’s efforts, CJI collaborated with Nevada state leaders and Helmsley to replicate the project in Nevada. State leaders are hopeful that Nevada’s pilot will be just as successful as South Dakota’s and will likewise expand across the state in subsequent years.

“I expect this program will help fill a critical gap,” Speaker Pro Tempore Steve Yeager said. “In our 2019 criminal justice reform legislation, we committed to strengthening responses to behavioral health needs and Virtual Crisis Care is a major step toward achieving that goal.”

Click here to read a press release about Nevada’s Virtual Crisis Care program.