Many areas of the country have had to deal with some level of self-isolation over the past couple of months due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The change in normal routines, being separated from family and friends, losing a job, canceling of group functions or even not being able to go to an out-of-home hobby, has had an adverse effect on some. It is easy to see why, and it’s also easy to be overwhelmed with anxiety about this pandemic.
We are constantly bombarded with news about the death toll of COVID-19 and the current statistics that come with it, which is understandingly a concern. However, with the unemployment rate rising and people isolating in small spaces with or without anyone else, not having an outside outlet has caused a lot of mental health problems.
With the anxiety due to the uncertainty, many agencies are seeing a rise in domestic violence, substance abuse, and overall mental health related 911 calls throughout the country. A federal emergency hotline even saw a 1000% increase in texts during this time. In some situations, people have limited access to their normal mental health care or community groups that would give them support in times of need. Couple this with a very large increase in alcohol sales and firearm sales (which is the main cause of suicide in the United States). Because of these reasons, and many more, JAMA Psychiatry believes the COVID-19 pandemic could help create the perfect storm for suicide rates to jump in the coming weeks, which means suicide related calls will be coming as well.
Telecommunicators are on the front line dealing with these types of psychiatric calls; anything can happen at any given time in these volatile situations. If they are dealing with the suicidal caller themselves, they can be emotionally unstable, unpredictable, and even dangerous due to their altered mental state. The telecommunicator is challenged by juggling asking questions to obtain vital information for the responders, while also trying to build rapport with the caller until help arrives. Responding officers will be on edge because of the danger that comes from dealing with a person in an altered mental state, and also having to worry about COVID-19 while responding. These are not easy tasks for anyone involved.
Before the Pandemic, it was estimated 50% of 911 dispatchers answered at least one suicide related call during their career. Managing these types of calls can be daunting under “normal” circumstances, but in these uncertain times, isn’t it even more important to prepare staff for these types of calls?
What can be done to prepare? There are programs to teach the telecommunicator how to handle a mental health related call until the responder or the intervention specialists arrive. These types of programs are invaluable to a telecommunicator but access to them, due to some of the states’ isolation and group size requirements, makes it challenging.
With the situation due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, there is now a level of receptiveness to obtaining information and training using the internet and audio-visual conferencing tools. This has helped with the transition to stay connected and to continue learning. These systems also offer an opportunity to PSAPs seeking access to training resources for existing hires or to retrain short term hires brought in to cover vacancies caused by the result of actual or suspected COVID-19 exposure. By being proactive and adapting to the changing operational environment, together with the utilization of online resources and training tools, PSAPs have the means to maintain the standard of care the communities they serve have come to expect.
As prepared as everyone can be, it is easy to become complacent even in times of stress. How can you combat this inevitable problem from happening? With consistent Quality Assessment, an agency’s trends can be identified to remedy any potential problem before something catastrophic were to happen. Assessment can be used to review an agency’s response to specific calls (infectious disease for one), and to measure that expectations are being met. It will offer insight on how to make internal changes if they are not met. Regular assessment also can be a beneficial training tool, not only for the employees on the call but also for other employees who have not been exposed to those specific scenarios.
By being prepared and continuously reviewing processes to assess trends, agencies can learn how they are dealing with these uncertain times. This will help reassure an agency that they are taking the steps necessary to meet their community’s needs and to get through this pandemic. There is light at the end of the tunnel, as some states are relaxing their distancing guidelines, and stores are beginning to open; we will have our new normal soon enough.