Crisis InterventionTraining August 23, 2011Posted 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.