Mental Health Symposium: What EMS sees

Published 5:48 pm Friday, June 7, 2024

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May 2024 was Mental Health Awareness Month. Ephraim McDowell Health and the Rotary Club of Danville partnered to host a Mental Health Symposium on May 29 at the Boyle County Library to encourage discussion about mental health in the community.

At the symposium, Boyle County Emergency Medical Services Outreach Coordinator Terry Dunn and Community Behavioral Specialist Mark Smith presented on the mental health issues EMS sees in the county. 

Boyle County EMS recently hired Mark Smith specifically to help local people struggling with mental health issues, which is a new position. EMS is working to form a crisis response team specialized in responding to mental health crises. 

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“We don’t know what we are going to see once we get out there,” Smith said. “We are seeing a lot of substance abuse, mental health cases, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. We are getting everything lined up now and hope to start in July. The purpose of the crisis response team will be to meet individuals in the field, perform an assessment, de-escalate, and offer the resources we can.”

Dunn explained that Boyle County EMS expects to increase their caseload once the crisis response team begins operation. He provided the numbers that the EMS quick response team saw in 2023. They saw 357 clients, did 712 home visits, saw 179 substance use disorders, and 24 overdose deaths, with three being caused by alcohol.

“Some of these new drugs coming out we don’t even have tests for,” Dunn said. “Fentanyl is still at the forefront of overdoses. We are seeing it in basically anything, even in vape pens. Teenagers and even adults think they are safe because they are made in a factory, but they don’t know they have been altered.”

He explained that fake pills are particularly dangerous.

“Pill press machines can be bought online very easily,” Dunn said. “They are being manufactured in basements and bedrooms. They look identical to prescription medication, but the ingredients are different.”

2023 was the first year that Boyle County EMS began tracking mental health issues that they respond to.

“In 2023, we had 10 suicide fatalities; eight of those were from gunshot wounds. That is almost one a month. That is too high,” Dunn said. “I do have some good news. Looking at the data for where we are now in 2024 compared to 2023, we have had 36 substance abuse cases compared to 69 last year. They are down significantly. Overdoses, we had 39, and right now, we are at 23. Overdose deaths, we had 12 at this point; today, we have three. That is a dramatic difference.”

He said they have seen 71 mental health cases as of this point in the year compared to 43 in 2023.

“One of the biggest mental health issues we are seeing in the county is anxiety,” Dunn said. “We are seeing that we respond to a case of chest pain, but if you look at their vitals, they are fine. Anxiety can become physical, and it presents physical symptoms.”

Dunn explained that it is vital for EMS to have a trusting relationship with patients when they respond to mental health crisis calls. 

“You need to have the compassion to do this job and build a repertoire with individuals who suffer from mental health conditions,” Dunn said. “They are not easily trusting, especially to those on the outside. Sometimes, it may take a few different visits. You must continue coming back and calling to check in.”

Dunn hopes that Boyle County EMS’s mental health programs can become a model of success for other communities to implement.

“We are hoping to set the trend nationwide,” Dunn said. “We hope to give this program to communities all over the state. We look forward to continuing to do the initiative. We are just getting started.”

Editor’s note: Mental Health Awareness Month was in May, and Ephraim McDowell Health sponsored a symposium on the topic. This is the first of three articles on what was discussed at the symposium.