HCSO pilots innovative telepsychiatry program aimed at combining tech, law enforcement and mental health care

HOUSTON — As the mental health care crisis in the United States grows, the way law enforcement responds has to adapt.

The Harris County Sheriff's Office is in phase 2 of a pilot program that puts a mental health care professional in the palm of their deputies' hands.

“Law enforcement is increasingly responding to these individuals. We`re not mental health professionals.  We`re dealing with people in some of the most difficult mental health crisis,” HCSO Project Manager Frank Webb said.

The telepsychiatry program arms deputies with a tablet that allows for a video chat out in the field in situations where a potential patient may not need to go to jail or an emergency room.

“A lot of these individuals are taken by law enforcement to hospital emergency rooms to be evaluated. Hospital emergency rooms are being inundated with these individuals, the information that I have is that each time a person is brought to an emergency room for an evaluation, it's $2,000,” explains Webb.

It's been a valued addition to Deputy Don Hess on the Crisis Intervention Response Team.

“Usually, what I do is I tell [psychiatrists] what we're going into and then let them talk to the consumer. Then we make the decision, both of us, what's the best course of action,” says Hess.

“In phase 1, about 45% of our calls were diverted in one way or another," Webb said. "We actually had psychiatrists prescribe medication via technology in phase 1."

Technology can become another tool in helping not only keeping our streets safer, but it can also aid those suffering from real mental health problems find the care they deserve.