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

Uplift Lexington County

Representatives from law enforcement agencies, health care providers and other Midlands organizations spoke at the Brookland Baptist Church on Nov. 30 about the UPLIFT Lexington County program. Staff/Casey Darnell

WEST COLUMBIA — More than 30 organizations in the Midlands are launching a program to help people with mental illnesses avoid emergency room visits and potentially dangerous interactions with law enforcement.

The Duke Endowment, a private foundation focused on health care — among other causes, donated a three-year $980,000 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, getting those with mental illnesses proper care before a crisis.

Kassy Alia Ray, founder of the nonprofit Serve & Connect, lost her husband, Forest Acres Officer Gregory Alia, after he was killed in 2015 while on duty. Her husband’s death inspired her to seek change in relationships between communities and police, she said at a Nov. 30 news conference at Brookland Baptist Church in West Columbia.

At the sentencing hearing for Jarvis Hall, the man who shot her husband, Kassy Alia Ray asked if his death could have been avoided if Hall could have gotten help before the fatal day.

“Every day there are people who are in need, people who are hurting,” Kassy Alia Ray said. "What if we can work together to help them? How many lives would be saved?”

The Lexington County Sheriff's Department has seen a spike during the pandemic in 911 calls relating to mental health crises, Sheriff Jay Koon said. Koon hopes the program will reduce emergency room visits for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

“We realized a long time ago that we can’t arrest our way out of those problems,” Koon said. “(An) encouraging thought that comes out of this program is getting really to the root cause of what's going on in people's lives.”

Interactions with law enforcement can also be deadly for people with mental illnesses. More than one in five people in the U.S. fatally shot by police were experiencing a mental illness, according to a Washington Post database tracking deadly police shootings since 2015.

Macey Silano, the project manager for UPLIFT, said the program will work toward removing barriers to mental health care and providing training to law enforcement officers on how to respond to people in crisis. 

A new therapist from 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, said Sarah Main, the center’s executive director. That therapist and the community paramedics team will redirect people to mental health resources before another crisis occurs.

Lexington County Mental Health Center has already embedded a therapist with the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department to help respond to mental health-related calls, Main said. She hopes UPLIFT will pair more therapists with law enforcement.

Koon said the sheriff’s department has reduced the strain on EMS from mental health calls through a partnership with the mental health center's Mobile Crisis Team. That team responds to calls with the sheriff’s department to avoid an ambulance transport to a hospital when possible.

“EMS has less calls, the ER is less crowded, but more importantly, our citizens are getting better service and hopefully getting past their issues,” Koon said.

Reach Casey Darnell at cdarnell@postandcourier.com. Follow them on Twitter at @caseydarnell_.