Crisis Behavioral Health Readiness

Behavioral health emergencies affecting whole communities can arise suddenly and can be as unpredictable as the weather. Recent natural disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria serve as reminders that all communities are vulnerable to the kind of crisis exposure that turns lives upside down and results in extensive emotional turmoil.

In such situations, the overall readiness of a healthcare provider organization is determined by its ability to respond not only to medical needs but also to psychiatric trauma within its community, with a solid plan of action in place. Implementation and deployment of mobile crisis teams are essential in addressing behavioral health needs at any time, but especially when a disaster strikes. By leveraging telepsychiatry and telebehavioral health within these care models, forward-thinking health systems can help ensure rapid response to mental health needs and the best outcomes.

Community Mental Health Response

To be able to respond quickly to community needs in a disaster, health systems should have dedicated mental health teams in place composed of specially trained professionals who know how to respond to specific mental health issues that develop as a result of a disaster or other community trauma, such as severe destruction or loss of life.

Another way health systems can act to support mental health response in a disaster is through the use of mental health mobile crisis teams. The purpose of such teams should be to intervene with individuals who may be experiencing or are about to experience a mental health crisis in the community by offering real-time support and determining the best course of action for these individuals.

All U.S. states are currently experiencing professional behavioral health shortages, however, making access to needed services and providers a challenge, especially in times of crisis when many people may need help quickly. An effective model for addressing this challenge is the use of telepsychiatry to improve access to care. Such a model also can provide support not only when a disaster hits, but also on an ongoing basis.

Telepsychiatry Advantage

Telepsychiatry allows sessions to be conducted from the anywhere in the community, including individuals’ homes, shelters, and other locations where privacy is possible. Crisis response teams who are deployed in the community can set up consultations with remote telepsychiatry providers on an iPad or other mobile device, allowing individuals in need of immediate evaluation to speak with remote providers on the spot.

Access Services, a not-for-profit organization in Pennsylvania that delivers support services for individuals with special needs, offers an example of how one mental health crisis team is improving its ability to respond to a mental health crisis. In 2014, the organization launched one of the nation’s first models of remote crisis behavioral health care.

According to Brenda Boorse, vice president of digital operations and communications at Access Services, the program reduces the time consumers spend awaiting care and lessens the strain on the psychiatric resources of area hospitals.

“Mobile crisis intervention paired with telehealth is a more immediate support for people,” Boorse says. “It helps resolve the immediate crisis in many cases without unnecessary and costly hospitalization.”

Telepsychiatry can empower local provider resources and elevate readiness strategies by complementing provided services through disaster relief organizations. Although critical to any response strategy, many national disaster relief organizations require a lengthy vetting processes for local behavioral health providers to volunteer their time, which can delay access. Leveraging telepsychiatry provides an effective means of ensuring behavioral healthcare providers will be available in the immediate aftermath of an emergency.

Getting Started

Hospitals or health systems considering a telepsychiatry response program can get started by working with local government officials to conduct a community needs assessment to identify current gaps and opportunities. An organization should look at its existing technological capabilities, define the profile of its population, evaluate the capacity of its existing provider network, make volume projections, identify funding sources, and create action plans around the potential disasters or crises their community may face.

Crisis situations are inevitable across any community, and effective response and remediation often hinges on readiness. Telepsychiatry offers a key resource for addressing the behavioral healthcare needs in emergency situations, and healthcare organizations should consider how to leverage the advantages of this emerging model to meet the mental health needs of their communities.


Geoffrey Boyce is executive director of InSight Telepsychiatry, Marlton, NJ.

Original article published on Healthcare Financial Management Association.