First Responders— Using Behavioral Health Approaches to Improve Safety for All

By: Paolo del Vecchio, M.S.W., Director, SAMHSA Center for Mental Health Services; CAPT Maryann E. Robinson, Ph.D., R.N., Chief, Emergency Mental Health and Traumatic Stress Services Branch

Every day, first responders including police officers, firefighters and emergency medical services ‘personnel face situations requiring rapid but thoughtful decision-making. De-escalating a crisis, particularly ones involving persons who may be experiencing a mental illness or substance use disorder requires an approach informed by behavioral health knowledge. SAMHSA developed resources for first responders to provide the knowledge necessary to support individuals in crisis while maintaining safety.

First responders can be the first step on the road to recovery. Whether a person in crisis is experiencing an acute primary psychosis manic episode, severe depression or a drug overdose the goal is to provide trauma-informed support to people in need.

Creating Safe Scenes is a free online training course featuring interactive elements to train first responders to achieve five goals:

  • Understand the basics of behavioral health crises , including factors that may lead to crises
  • Make a safe connection with an individual experiencing a crisis
  • Use de-escalation strategies as needed when working with an individual in crisis
  • Develop community networks and share referral resources
  • Increase the safety of everyone on scene, including themselves and individuals in crisis

The Creating Safe Scenes Training Course may be accessed at: Web Site Policy

Also, as our nation deals with the epidemic of opioid use and overdose, SAMHSA has developed an Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit for first responders, community members and prescribers to help save lives. This toolkit offers strategies to health care providers, communities, and local governments for developing practices and policies to help prevent opioid-related overdoses and deaths. Access reports for community members, prescribers, patients and families, and those recovering from opioid overdose. The Opioid Toolkit may be accessed at:

Creating Safe Scenes and the Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit will help first responders apply safe behavioral health strategies during a crisis, as well as promote and practice the ever-important act of self-care, at all times.

Behavioral health crises can often be prevented through services and support. To find help in your community, visit SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator,, or call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357) for voice or 1-800-487-4889 (TDD).

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