HelpLine of Delaware and Morrow Counties: Agency answers calls to year's ups and downs

Paul Comstock
ThisWeek

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic brought with it an increased level of emotional and mental stress, causing a rising number of calls to HelpLine of Delaware and Morrow Counties.

 Its free 24/7 hotline connects callers with community resources to address such issues as suicide prevention, depression and family violence, said executive director Susan Hanson.

HelpLine of Delaware and Morrow Counties logo

HelpLine also refers callers to agencies and providers that can help with economic challenges, such as the need for food or rent or utility payments.

Callers can speak directly with someone by calling HelpLine at 800-684-2324, Hanson said. They also can text "helpline" to 898211 or dial the 211 crisis and referral hotline.

 Since the pandemic began, the number of calls received by HelpLine has increased 15%, Hanson said. The number of calls skyrocketed in March 2020, when Ohio went on lockdown because of the virus, she said.

"Between March 16, 2019, and March 26, 2019, we answered 471 calls and texts," she said.

For the same dates in 2020, "we answered 773 calls and texts – a 64% increase over the prior year overwhelmingly due to the pandemic," she said.

The callers were "anxious, upset, needing information.”

“We were able to provide reassurance, emotional support, de-escalation of people in crisis and sharing where they could find more information about the pandemic, safety measures, state requirements, etc., as well as information on how to access help," Hanson said.

HelpLine's calls also increased during last fall's COVID surge and again later when vaccinations became available, she said.

During the virus surge from October to December, HelpLine received 3,254 calls, a monthly average of 1,085, she said.

When vaccinations became widely available from January to March, the total number of calls was 2,973, a monthly average of 991.

Vaccination and pandemic calls since have decreased significantly, Hanson said, with all calls averaging about 800 a month.

She said HelpLine has a large database of community services that can provide economic assistance – as well as credit counseling and legal help – including a number of agencies based in Delaware County.

Over the years, she said, HelpLine has increased its follow-up contacts with those at risk for suicide and those having contact with the Delaware Police Department for behavioral-health or substance-abuse issues.

"The first year we began doing follow-up calls, 2014, we completed 578 follow-up calls and texts, and this past year we did over 2,800 – again to persons identified as being at risk for suicide, as well as serious mental-health or substance-use issues, in order to provide emotional support and linkage to treatment and other social services in order to help stabilize their situations," Hanson said. "Our program is part of a systemwide effort of the Delaware-Morrow Mental Health & Recovery Services Board to better ensure people get connected to treatment services in our community," she said.

HelpLine is funded as part of the MHRSB property tax, Hanson said.

"The Delaware-Morrow Mental Health levy is a 1-mill levy, currently being collected at a residential effective rate of 0.785542 mill," said Shari Lewis, tax-administration director with the Delaware County Auditor's Office.

The levy will expire after tax year 2021, which will be collected in 2022, Lewis said.

"HelpLine is crucial to the mental-health continuum of care in our two counties," said Kyle Lewis, communications director for the Recovery Services Board. "They are the board-funded 'front door' to all local behavioral-health services and supports. With 24/7 accessibility and their unique ability to refer people quickly to the care they need, our community significantly benefits from their expertise," Lewis said. 

At one time, Hanson said, mental and behavioral issues were almost a taboo subject.

"We've made a lot of progress. I think we still have ways to go in terms of addressing that issue of stigma, and it's not a personal weakness that you may be struggling with depression. There is help. You can get better," she said.

A sign of the progress made, she said, is that law enforcement in Delaware County handles behavioral-health issues specifically as such, transferring people to OhioHealth Grady Memorial Hospital when evaluation is needed. HelpLine is among the agencies assisting in follow-up contacts with those individuals, she said.

Delaware Police Department Chief Bruce Pijanowski said city police in 2012 applied for a research project – sponsored by agencies that included the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance – that led to the department developing a Multi-Agency Crisis Intervention Team.

The Delaware County Sheriff's Office and other police departments in the county now participate directly in that team, Pijanowski said.

A main goal, he said, is ensuring mental-health provider agencies do follow-up contact with those encountered during behavioral-health police calls, to prevent issues from becoming bigger issues.

Even before the team was created, Pijanowski said, many officers in the county were certified in crisis-intervention training to help them recognize behavioral-health incidents and de-escalate confrontations.

During the research project, he said, Delaware police learned that many of those encountered during behavioral-health incidents already were clients of mental-health service providers.

Last August, Pijanowski said, the Delaware department added a coordinator – funded by the Delaware-Morrow Mental Health & Recovery Services Board – to track follow-up contacts between providers and those identified in behavioral-health police calls.

In the early 2000s, Pijanowski said, police began to use the term "behavior health" instead of "mental health."

One reason was to reduce the stigma involved, he said, particularly regarding episodes that basically are "a 30-minute meltdown." 

Tracy Whited, community-relations manager with the Delaware County Sheriff's Office, said, "We have been continually improving our reporting system over the years – both internally and among our community behavioral- and mental-health partners – to help with clarity and exchange of information."

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