Remote counselors give Volusia deputies more options when responding to mental health calls

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. – For the past 12 months, Volusia County Sheriff’s deputies responding to sensitive calls dealing with people in mental health crises have had another option, besides taking someone to the hospital for their own safety under the Baker Act.

Deputies have been able to offer a chat with a counselor through an iPad.

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The Sheriff’s Office gave News 6 body camera video of one of the most recent calls in the Deltona area. A woman agreed to take that help when the responding deputy offered an iPad with an SMA Healthcare counselor on the other end.

“We need to have someone who will dig into your life a little bit if you want them to?” the deputy said.

The woman said yes and took the iPad.

Mellonese Mayfield, director of the Mobile Response Team for SMA Healthcare for Volusia and Flagler counties, said before the iPads deputies were more likely to Baker Act someone who appeared to be in a mental health crisis.

“A lot of people would end up in mental health units and Baker Acts would occur,” Mayfield said. “If you were asking law enforcement to make a determination of how to treat them [people in crisis] they would Baker act them a lot of times. And now? There are options.”

Sergeants have six iPads to access the counselors.

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SMA Healthcare makes its counselors available to the Sheriff’s Office 24 hours a day, immediately through iPads and, if need be, in person within hours.

Maria Reis is one of the Mobile Response Team counselors and is often on the other end of the iPad.

“Some of it is people who are lonely, some of it is people who haven’t been taking their meds and they don’t understand what’s going on,” Reis said. “They don’t understand the correlation that if they don’t take their meds their mental health deteriorates.”

Reis said through the on-demand virtual counseling she’s been able to get people back on their medication, commit to counseling, or solve other personal problems, all, ideally, to avoid future interactions with deputies that always have the potential to end badly.

“There are other options beyond a Baker Act,” Mayfield said. “Sometimes having the opportunity to talk to a counselor and process what the issues are. Maybe the only thing that’s required.”

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A sheriff’s office spokesperson said over the past year, just in Deltona where the iPad pilot program started, deputies used the iPad virtual counseling option successfully a dozen times.

Often responding deputies will start with the iPads and the counseling will continue in-person when a Mobile Response Team member arrives on scene – also part of the sheriff’s office partnership with SMA.

Mayfield said despite the iPads’ success, they’re still not being used as often as possible because convincing someone to talk to a counselor through a tablet can be awkward and/or uncomfortable for both the person and the deputy.

A sheriff’s office spokesperson said the office is looking at how to expand the iPad virtual counseling program and make the iPads more used and useful.

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