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Virginia completes rollout of 'alternative transports,' paving way for more mental health resources

The initiative focuses on temporary detention orders, also known as TDO's, issued when someone has become a potential harm to themselves or others.

NORFOLK, Va. — The push for better mental health resources is getting a big boost in the state of Virginia. 

The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services just completed its yearslong alternative transport program for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

"Alternative transportation fundamentally changes how children and adults under TDO are transported from the evaluation site to inpatient psychiatric treatment," a release from the DBHDS said last week. 

The initiative focuses on temporary detention orders, also known as TDO's, issued when someone has become a potential harm to themselves or others.

Law enforcement officers are normally the ones who normally carry out TDO's, and because of that, factors like riding in the back of a police car and being restrained by handcuffs were sometimes involved in the process. 

Alternative transports offer a different experience: individuals can ride unrestrained in unmarked pedestrian cars, with a driver trained in de-escalating a mental health crisis. 

“We really feel that stigmatizes mental health and deters people from seeking mental health," said Gail Paysour, the alternative transportation coordinator at DBHDS. 

Since the first transport in October of 2019, more than 2,000 safe transports have been executed across the state of Virginia. 

The Hampton Roads region, part of Region 5, sees roughly 400 TDO's a month across nine Eastern Virginia communities (Chesapeake, Colonial, Eastern Shore, Hampton-Newport News, Middle Peninsula-Northern Neck, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach and Western Tidewater). 

"We have more recovery options. No restraints, no handcuffs. The vehicle is more discreet, so it’s not someone being transported in the back of a [police] vehicle," Paysour said.

According to DBHDS, Eastern Virginia has one of the higher TDO rates in the state, and 94 safe transports have been executed since the region's implementation of alternative transports in August 2020. 

“The exterior of their vehicle is just like any you would notice on the street," said Sgt. William Pickering with the Norfolk Police Department. 

Pickering, serving nearly 15 years with NPD, said the alternative transports were a useful tool in a process that's historically been carried out by law enforcement. 

He said one of the biggest advantages to the alternative transports is their ability to keep police officers in their respective communities. 

“When there’s a bed available, it may not be available in Hampton Roads. If that bed is available in, lets say Stanton [Va.], or anywhere else, it’s law enforcement’s responsibility to transport that individual. Our officers will leave Norfolk General hospital and go to Stanton, Virginia, or even farther to deliver that patient to the mental health facility. That can be a very long day."

Last week, the DBHDS completed their rollout, meaning every adult and child in the state of Virginia now has access to this 24/7 service.