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Crisis InterventionTraining August 23, 2011

Posted by Crazy Mermaid in Uncategorized.

A few months ago in Seattle, a homeless man with schizophrenia was shot and killed by a Seattle police officer. There was an uproar by the people of Seattle because the individual in question was a harmless homeless man.  A well-known Native American wood carver, he hung out in downtown Seattle carving statues of totem poles and selling them to the general public.  His woodcarving was the death of him, because the officer perceived the man’s carving knife was a threat, even though the man was quite far from the officer when he brandished “his weapon”, the knife he used to carve his totem poles.  His death was perceived by the general public as a needless act of violence against a man in the throes of a mental health crisis. In fact, this death at the hands of a police officer who hadn’t been trained in de-escalation of mental health crisis situations could possibly have been avoided with Crisis Intervention Training. The officer’s actions added another straw to the camel’s back of negative public opinion, further damaging the relationship between the Seattle police force and the city’s constituents.

While at this year’s annual NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) conference this past weekend, I sat in on a seminar on the new Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program. Established in Wenatchee, Washington, the training gives police officers skills to handle those people in mental health crisis. Officers get a general overview of the various types of mental illnesses and their symptoms, as well as new tools to use in de-escalation of a mental health crisis situation. The goal is to enhance officers’ communication skills while not compromising their safety as well as to save lives of innocent people.

Diana Hefley, a writer with The Herald, an Everett-based newspaper, wrote an excellent article on Sunday (August 21, 2011) regarding this new program. (http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20110821/NEWS01/708219902/1122/NEWS. Along with training in handling those in the throes of a mental health crisis, the program puts names and faces to those calling in for help.  Participants get a presentation by parents of children with mental illnesses, as well as sit-down time in a neutral atmosphere in non-crisis situations with people suffering from mental illnesses or their family members. Getting the officers in the same room with these individuals in a neutral non-crisis situation does both parties good, putting faces to the names of those 911 calls.

As part of that CIT training, I was asked to speak to two sets of officers as a representative person with a mental illness who was not in crisis. I sat down with two sets of perfectly charming and harmless officers, sitting across the table with them at a local Starbucks. While drinking coffee, we each had the opportunity to ask each other questions in a neutral environment. I found the officers to be genuinely interested in learning about mental illness as well as how to approach people in a mental health crisis situation. It was good for both parties.

Generally speaking, a mental health crisis is different in that it will be a family member or a member of the general public who first makes the 911 call rather than the person in the crisis because the person in crisis is unable to function well enough to make that call.  It’s hard for the officer to get in the head of the person in crisis because the crisis is preventing that person from acting in a normal, society-accepted manner. This is the first of many differences between 911 mental health calls and “regular” 911 calls.

A difference in the thought processes of those in a mental health crisis, which is the cornerstone of mental illness, can be perceived by society at large as dangerous behavior, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Determining whether a situation is causing the person with the mental illness to act out inappropriately rather than dangerously is a first step in saving lives. Belief that you’re a Mermaid or that someone is reading your thoughts, though not acceptable behavior by the general public, isn’t against the law.  How a person in the middle of a crisis responds to the crisis intervention team will depend in part on the actions of that team.  That person in crisis deserves help, and knowing how to give him that help will result in better outcomes from those 911 calls.

As Detective Kendra Conley, one of the directors of the new program,said, officers are the front-line responders to these individuals in the throes of a mental health crisis, and the training is designed to offer additional skills to handle these situations, which often require a rapid, sensitive and skilled response.  The intent isn’t to expose anyone to unnecessarily hazardous situations.

Understanding the various types of mental illnesses and how to approach people in crisis will go a long way towards making life safer and better for all of us.  Perhaps that homeless man wouldn’t have lost his life had his first responder, the police officer who shot and killed him, had this training.



1. moodybpgirl - August 25, 2011

Of course formal CIT training all comes down to the big “f-word”: funding. Whenever proactive rather than punitive approaches to psychological crises are available, the money never is. At least that’s the case in my state. But I’m grateful you are able and willing to articulate your experiences to police officers. Any opportunity to build bridges between people with mental illness and law enforcement (or people in any position of authority, for that matter) is vital.

2. Crazy Mermaid - August 25, 2011

In writing about the CIT training, I hope to show a blueprint that seems to be working for Washington State that might also work in other States.

3. moodybpgirl - August 26, 2011

I see. We just haven’t been able to adequately fund the program in MT so I’m not entirely sure how it works. There are some CIT trained officers here but as far as I know they have voluntarily gone out of their way to pursue the program. This issue has dovetailed with the MHAD (Mental Health Advanced Directive) law that has passed (but has not yet gone into effect) in MT that gives people the right to *request* a CIT trained officer during their crisis intervention but only time will tell how that works out.

4. cd - June 19, 2012

My wife ( has bipolar) had to stay in an isolated room in the emergency room at Skagit Valley Hospital for 2 hours. When she was admitted to the Care Unit she told the attending psych dr. that she felt like she just came out of a dungeon. She was not speaking much and the dr. called me at home and asked what she meant. I told him that it was her mind and she probably thought about home since she was not going out of the house much. Much to my disbelief when my wife told me where they put her in isolation by herself for 2 hours. Several things have happened since she got there that has set her back. They are over and I hope she gets well soon to come home. Too bad that in receiving care it causes things to be worse before they get better. I wish I would have done a lot things different for this episode of her illness. Taking her there would have been one.

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