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Connecting peer-run organizations to Virginia's crisis call centers

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Strength in Peers
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Strength in Peers helps people dealing mental health, substance use, and trauma-related challenges through peer support groups.

A new statewide approach to mental health aims to intercept crisis situations before they get out of hand. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

Virginia is expanding its system for responding to mental health crises, thanks to the Marcus-David Peters Act and the national rollout of 988 – the three-digit mental health hotline that goes live on July 16th.

LIZ SIGNORELLI MOORE: As part of Virginia's crisis system expansion, every locality in the state is covered by one of five regional crisis call centers that provide support and prevention 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Liz Signorelli Moore is the call center director for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services' Region 1 – which encompasses a huge swath of the state, from the western border into central Virginia and up to the edge of northern Virginia. She works closely with the organization PRS, based in Fairfax County, which actually answers the phones for four out of the department's five geographic regions, including ours.

MOORE: In coming months, the call centers will be able to bring care directly to the person in crisis.

Depending on the person's needs, that care could manifest in a variety of ways. Maybe they're referred to counseling at their nearest Community Services Board, or CSB – Virginia's public mental health agencies. Maybe a co-responder team of a mental health professional and law enforcement officer needs to be sent out to check on the person immediately.

But what if that person would get the most help from a 'peer-run organization,' one where the organization's leadership are people who have lived experience with substance use, mental health or trauma-related challenges?

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Randi B. Hagi
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Nicky Fadley is the founder and executive director of Strength in Peers.

NICKY FADLEY: They deserve to have the dignity of choice. To have more, different options for what that crisis response is going to be.

Nicky Fadley, executive director of the organization Strength in Peers, is working to put those options on the table with funding from a grant under the state's "Equity at Intercept 0" program.

The use of the word ‘intercept’ is intentional, because the program is meant to intercept people with mental health or substance use issues who are at risk of getting entangled with the criminal justice system if they don't get help. It also aims to ensure community services are available to meet the needs of people of color and other minority groups.

To this end, Fadley has brought together all the CSBs in the region with peer-run organizations to map out how people who call those crisis lines can get the services best suited for them.

FADLEY: We have a mix of partners that are just doing peer support, and then some that are doing counseling, some that are doing residential services, and some that are doing medication-assisted treatment … Those of us who have, you know, personal recovery experience know that there's lots of things that have helped us along our recovery journey.

One of Fadley's collaborators is Sabrina Burress – the co-founder and executive director of the ARROW Project, a Staunton-based organization that provides counseling services and offers training and supervision for aspiring mental health workers. And it breaks down barriers people have to getting help.

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Sabrina Burress
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Sabrina Burress is the co-founder and executive director of ARROW Project.

SABRINA BURRESS: Lack of insurance, lack of knowledge of resources, … the stigma around mental health, a limited number of trained and supervised mental health professionals. And then, also, the lack of collaborative resources to get folks engaged with services.

Both Burress and Fadley were also members of the stakeholder group that decided how the Marcus-David Peters Act would be implemented across the state.

Governor Ralph Northam signed the Marcus-David Peters Act into law in late 2020. It was named in honor of a Black high school teacher from Richmond who was killed by law enforcement in 2018 while experiencing a mental health crisis.

BURRESS: How do we as a community show up for the folks who are calling in a way that does not then put them at risk of – I mean, frankly, their lives, right?

Burress said crafting the implementation plan –

BURRESS: Was such a beautiful opportunity to be sort of at the ground-level grassroots, right? … we're going to get in at the ground level and do some of the work to make the Marcus Alert what it should be and what it needs to be for our state as a whole.

This work is both professional and personal for Burress – she runs the ARROW Project, and has a background in mental healthcare work, and she's also a Black woman who is the mother of two Black sons.

BURRESS: I remember when my oldest, who is now 21, turned 16, and we had to have a conversation around where you keep your license in the car, and where you keep your registration, and what happens if you ever do get pulled over. … And my kid did get pulled over once, and he said to me that the officer remarked to him about how well-mannered he was. That was very intentional training that you got in your life.

She said that programs like the Marcus Alert system and Equity at Intercept 0 are examples for her children and her mentees that –

BURRESS: We can initiate change, right? … In a way that keeps folks safe. In a way that makes folks feel like they can walk out their front door, drive their car. And so these acts of engaging in social justice are just so important to be examples for other people.

Burress and Fadley are hoping to add more peer-run organizations in Region 1 to their ranks. Interested parties can find contact information at strengthinpeers.org.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.
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  • Some behavioral health and law enforcement agencies around Virginia have begun to implement the Marcus-David Peters Act. Please note that this story does include mentions of mental health crises, death, and suicide. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.