Oklahoma County Sheriff's Deputy Gene Bradley holds an iPad designed to help people in crisis. The iPads connect Oklahomans to virtual counseling resources. (Mindy Ragan Wood/Oklahoma Voice)
OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma County Sheriff’s Deputy Gene Bradley stared down the reality that an armed man who threatened to end his life might die like so many others experiencing a mental health crisis.
But on that fall day in 2021, Bradley had a tool that would make a difference – an iPad that quickly connected the man to a mental health professional.
After a virtual visit with a counselor, the man who threatened to take his life decided to get help instead.
“That de-escalated the situation right then,” Bradley said. “That was a pretty intense situation where that tablet was a great intervention.”
Law enforcement and clinicians say the iPads distributed by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services have been a game changer in delivering services across the state.
The agency has distributed 30,000 iPads to law enforcement and mental health providers since 2021. The Oklahoma Legislature approved $17 million that year to enhance crisis response, including $2 million for iPads for officers.
Carrie Slatton Hodges, outgoing commissioner of the agency, said in an email the technology has strengthened its relationship with law enforcement, schools, firefighters and jails.
“We can place a tablet directly into the hands of consumers with more intense needs and they have immediate access to crisis de-escalation, which greatly reduces the number of calls to both 911 and 988, and results in fewer hospitalizations,” she said.
Since the boost in funding, the agency has added nearly two dozen urgent crisis centers — facilities that serve as emergency room care for mental health needs — and launched the free Mental Health Lifeline, 988. The agency also increased mobile crisis units, a team of clinicians which respond to behavioral health emergencies.
Virtual visits on an iPad are especially effective when a person in crisis doesn’t meet the criteria for law enforcement to take them to a mental health facility, Bradley said. Under state law, officers can force a person to get treatment at a hospital only if they are a threat to themselves or others.
Before the iPads, when someone didn’t meet criteria for a hospital, Bradley said 911 received more repeat calls from the same people.
A woman in eastern Oklahoma County called 911 in crisis over 100 times in 45 days. After she used the iPad to arrange treatment, she stopped calling, he said.
With iPads, repeat 911 calls have dropped because people are no longer “always at the boiling point,” he said.
In rural Oklahoma, where mental health resources are sometimes hours away, the iPads have saved police departments hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in transportation costs and overtime pay, said Noble County Sheriff Matt McGuire. His deputies have 14 iPads and one at the county jail.
“We’re saving ourselves three hours minimum, most of the time by having an iPad there instantly,” McGuire said.
He said the iPads take the pressure off of an officer, to spot the signs of a crisis they’re not trained to assess.
At least one provider has reported a drop in hospital admissions as more people in crisis choose to seek ongoing treatment or obtain medication through a virtual appointment via an iPad.
Grand Mental Health operates clinics in the northeast part of the state in 12 counties – a region with some of the highest rates of mental health related cases. Grand has increasingly used iPads since 2015. The provider reported telemedicine visits through the iPads reduced inpatient hospital stays by 93% from 2015 to 2021.
Most of Grand’s patients receive iPads to continue treatment, which has helped decrease the need for inpatient care, said Nick Allgood, chief clinical officer.
Allgood also said ongoing use of the iPads allows clients to get help if they experience another crisis to speak with an on-call clinician. Clients can use the iPads to work through treatment “homework,” like journaling and self-assessments, he said.
“The least restrictive environment tends to have the best outcomes,” Allgood said. “If you can solve a crisis over telehealth without somebody ever having to go to their house, then that’s the best case for outcomes.”
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