Thursday, September 15, 2011

Visitor Info Centers - First Responders for the Mentally Ill

Every official Visitor Information Center (VIC,) regardless of the community it serves or location will at some time be faced with how to compassionately and effectively serve individuals with mental illness.  Many times these are individuals are local residents who wander into the VIC, but not always.

VICs are almost always operated by community/destination marketing organizations (DMOs) because these facilities serve the secondary role of stimulating and optimizing post-arrival visitor circulation and spending.

The Centers also provide residents a one-stop source when hosting visiting friends and relatives and a key element to any community’s emergency preparedness plan as Durham’s did recently by operating its Emergency Lodging Hot-Line for evacuees during Hurricane Irene.

Of course, calling 911 is always an option when a traveler or resident with a mental illness needs assistance or is in distress.  But communities like Durham have an even better option that VICs can access.

Mental health and substance abuse professionals at a place called Durham Center Access provide Durham’s DMO and its VIC staff with training and plans of action on how to deal with mental health crises as well as how to access services such as:

  • Telephone screening for behavioral health issues.


  • A mobile crisis team to provide integrated, short-term crisis response, stabilization and intervention for people experiencing a mental health or chemical dependency crisis.


  • A 24/7 walk-in center for emergency situations to make psychiatric and medical assessments and to provide triage for hospitalizations, stabilization, detoxification, and outpatient referrals.

Colleagues with whom I formerly worked at DCVB provide a list of some of the suggestions that Durham Center Access provided to front line people there who deal with these circumstances:

  • Assess the situation for the risk of suicide or harm (usually to one’s self)
  • If you believe the person is not in a crisis that needs immediate attention, engage that person in conversation.  Listen non-judgmentally and respectfully avoiding expressing any negative reaction.
  • Give reassurance and information.  Ask questions that show you care; seek clarification about what you heard; summarize facts and feelings expressed; be patient; don’t be critical; and above all, avoid confrontation with the individual unless it is necessary to prevent harm or dangerous acts.
  • Encourage the individual to get professional help.  This could include their primary care physician, mental health professionals or even a referral to the Durham Center.
  • Encourage self-help and other support strategies, particularly individuals with anxiety or depression, the two most common mental disorders.

Knowing something about the culture at DCVB, I suspect the folks there will leverage their newest strategic partnership one step further this as training to other front-line workers throughout the community including major employers and visitor-sector organizations such as restaurants, hotels, museums, theaters, sports facilities, shopping complexes etc.

Durham Center Access is an invaluable service.  I suggest that other DMOs check in their communities for a similar organization that can provide these services and invite them to talk with Visitor Center staff.

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