Newport News’ dispatch center managers said they have seen a serious rise in mental health-related calls since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Newport News 911 dispatchers are the first line of response with each phone call ringing into their center.
Lately, they said they’ve seen a lot more calls from both the 911 and 988 lines over the past couple of years regarding mental health.
“We’ve had about 1,000 calls for service last ear for our cares team where they actually went out and responded to triage to the citizens,” Newport News 911 Manager Laura McCartney explained.
With overwhelming numbers, it can sometimes put a strain on resources from the police department to fully respond to each call.
In order to keep up with the constant ringing, dispatchers are now partnering with crisis intervention experts and counselors to help ensure the right person is responding to that call.
Mobile crisis teams dispatched by the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, as well as crisis teams from the Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board, are now responding to Newport News as additional resources for individuals experiencing mental health crises, according to the Newport News Police Department .
The change comes as Virginia’s Marcus-David Peters Act, also known as “Marcus Alert,” shifts primary responsibility for behavioral health calls away from law enforcement to mental health professionals.
Cities like Newport News had until July 1 to implement Marcus Alert strategies. An NNPD spokeswoman said the department is proud to be ahead of the deadline.
Capt. Morgen Tietjens, who is also the Commander of the Newport News Police Communications Division, said this type of assistance can make a big difference for his department.
“We have a care team and they do a very, very good job, but supplementing that care team gives us an opportunity to serve more people,” said Capt. Tietjens. “If the 988 can handle a call through the phone, that’s one more resource we can deploy somewhere else.”
Through this effort, dispatchers will work with the 988 workers to determine what type of response is needed for each call.
Calls on the lower-risk scale are turned over to 988 crisis counselors. Calls that require additional resources are handled on a case-by-case basis, which may include a Newport News Fire Department CARE unit, a Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board Mobile Crisis Team, and/or a 988 Region Five Mobile Crisis Team, with police assistance.
“The severity of the symptoms of what’s going on can vary and that’s what’s going to determine the appropriate response to any crises,” explained Connie Vatsa who coordinates the Marcus Alert in Hampton and Newport News. “988 call takers and 911 dispatchers will coordinate with each other to make sure the most appropriate response based on the level is given to the individual.”
Remember, you don’t always have to call 988 during a mental health concern or emergency. You can also text a message to that number.
If it’s an emergency, don’t hesitate to call 911.