Lexington County program helping mentally ill people avoid jail, ER visits | Columbia News

West Columbia – More than 30 organizations in the Midlands have launched a program to help people with mental illness avoid emergency room visits and potentially dangerous interactions with law enforcement.

The Duke Endowment, a private foundation focused on health care among other causes, has donated a $980,000, three-year grant to create UPLIFT Lexington County. Lexington Medical Center, the county sheriff’s department and other organizations are partnering to improve access to mental health resources, and provide appropriate care for people with mental illness before a crisis strikes.

Cassie Alia Ray, the nonprofit Surf and Connect Foundation, has lost her husband, Gregory Alia, a Forest Acres officer, after he was killed in 2015 while on the job. At a November 30 news conference at Brookland Baptist Church in western Columbia, she said her husband’s death inspired her to seek to change relationships between communities and the police.

At the sentencing hearing in the case of Jarvis Hall, the man who shot and killed her husband, Cassie Alia asked Ray if her husband’s death could have been avoided if Hall could have obtained help before the day her husband was murdered.

“Every day there are people in need, people getting hurt,” Cassie Alia Ray said. What if we could work together to help them? How many lives will be saved? “

Sheriff Jay Coon said the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department has seen a sharp rise during the pandemic in 911 calls related to mental health crises. Kuhn hopes the program will reduce emergency room visits for people with a mental health crisis.

“We realized a long time ago that we couldn’t stop our way out of those problems,” Kuhn said. “() An encouraging idea that comes out of this program is to really get to the root cause of what’s going on in people’s lives.”

Interactions with law enforcement can also be fatal to people with mental illness. More than one in five people in the United States killed by police had a mental illness, according to the Washington Post’s database that tracks fatal police shootings since 2015.

Maisie Celano, UPLIFT project manager, said the program will work to remove barriers to mental health care and provide training for law enforcement officers on how to respond to people in crises.

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Sarah Min, the center’s executive director, said a new therapist from the Lexington County Mental Health Center will work with the County EMS community paramedics team to identify people with mental illness who have previously used EMS during a crisis. This therapist and community paramedics team will redirect people to mental health resources before another crisis occurs.

Maine said the Lexington County Mental Health Center has already included a therapist with the Lexington County Police Department to help respond to mental health calls. She hopes UPLIFT will pair more therapists with law enforcement.

Kuhn said the mayor’s department has relieved pressure on EMS from mental health calls by partnering with the mental health center’s mobile crisis team. This team responds to calls with the mayor’s department to avoid taking the ambulance to the hospital when possible.

“EMS has fewer calls, ER is less crowded, but most importantly, our citizens are getting better service and hopefully they can get through their problems,” Kuhn said.

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