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United Way of Lancaster County


County behavioral health launching crisis peer support, confidential ‘Warm Line’

(Source: Lancaster County BHDS)

(Source: Lancaster County BHDS)
(Source: Lancaster County BHDS)

Lancaster County's Behavioral Health & Developmental Services department is moving forward with two initiatives to improve outreach to individuals dealing with mental health issues.

Through a contract with Blueprints for Addiction Recovery, BHDS now has certified peer support specialists available to partner with BHDS staff who respond to mental health emergencies.

Three peer counselors are "embedded" in BHDS' crisis intervention program, Deputy Director Julie Holtry said, and are going out on calls.

The initiative had a "soft launch" in December, and is continuing to ramp up, Holtry and BHDS Executive Director Judy Erb said, with the department looking to add five more members to its crisis intervention staff and two more certified peer specialists.

(Source: Lancaster County BHDS)

Meanwhile, BHDS will debut its "Warm Line," a free confidential phone service, this coming Monday.

The Warm Line, (717) 945-9976, is designed to be a supplement to the county's crisis hotline. It will offer "a safe place to discuss problems, talk about your day, or ask questions related to recovery and wellness strategies," BHDS said.

Certified peer specialists will staff the Warm Line from 2 to 10 p.m. seven days a week. Messages left outside those hours will be returned when the line is open again.

About crisis peer support

BHDS said last summer it hoped to incorporate peer support specialists into its existing crisis intervention program. They and the other new staff will significantly expand BHDS' capability to respond to mental health emergency situations, a capacity hitherto limited due to personnel and budget constraints.

Peer support specialists are individuals who have "lived experience" dealing with mental health issues themselves. Research shows they can be effective in establishing rapport with individuals who may distrust other mental health professionals.

Chris Dreisbach

"We are excited to be partnering with BHDS," said Chris Dreisbach, Blueprints' founder and CEO.

"Our goal is to bring the services to the individuals in the community that need them," he said. "That's our No. 1 priority."

The county is implementing a "co-responder" model, under which crisis intervention and peer support personnel respond to crisis calls on scene as a team. Both can interact with the individual in crisis, or one of them can step aside if the person wants to talk one-on-one.

"It's whatever that individual needs," Holtry said.

Frequently, police are dispatched to mental health emergencies that mental health teams are better qualified to handle. The intent is that Crisis Intervention handle those calls, Erb and Holtry said, with police not becoming involved unless absolutely necessary.

Better connections, lower cost

The inclusion of peer specialists and the avoidance in most cases of police intervention are both best practices, according to national guidelines for mobile crisis services published by the U.S. Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

SAMHSA cites studies indicating that crisis services are effective both at connecting people in crisis to the services they need, and in reducing emergency transportation, hospitalization law enforcement costs.

BHDS is able to launch the peer support crisis response and Warm Line thanks to a two-year, $1.5 million grant, federal funding awarded by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, part of $28 million awarded statewide to support mental health initiatives.

BHDS has a contract with Blueprints for $155,865 for Blueprints' certified peer specialist services through the end of June. The Warm Line is being offered through a $55,590 contract with Recovery Insight, also through June. Additionally, BHDS is paying $198,000 to Rhode Island-based vendor Living Complete Technologies for software updates needed for Crisis Intervention to comply with reporting requirements specified by the grant.

BHDS expects to continue the crisis peer response and Warm Line after the grant ends, Erb said, by drawing on block grant funding and reimbursements from the managed care program it has in place for Medicaid clients.