NOTE: I wrote this piece when I was attending college at Eastern Illinois University. I believe it to be so important that I decided to post it again here.
There are tons of videos online and in the news detailing how police officers have shot and killed someone who was experiencing a mental health crisis. There are many factors involved in these unfortunate incidents. One of these is a drastic misunderstanding by the officers involved in what they are facing.
Officer’s Regular Training is Not Enough
In initial police academy training, officers are taught to take charge. They are told that they are the authority in the room and to demand compliance. However, when dealing with someone experiencing a mental health crisis, this is not always possible.
A person, who lives with specific forms of severe mental health conditions, can become lost in a world where they can no longer hear or normally respond to stimuli.
Unfortunately, this includes the order to drop whatever is in their hands and get down on the ground. In this state, their brains are incapable of hearing and responding to an order from an officer for up to twenty-five minutes. During this time, an officer who has only their basic training to draw from may become fearful and frustrated.
That is where the deaths occur. Officers who responded inappropriately to the situation they found themselves in do not always cause the deaths, but instead, they react out of fear and frustration.
Enter crisis intervention training (CIT)
This intensive 40-hour training creates a connection between officers and individuals living with health disorders. They learn tools to improve communication and how to immediately recognize someone in a crisis. Crisis intervention training gives these officers the ability to safely de-escalate the situations where they are called to intervene by family members or neighbors of the person in crisis.
There are several advantages to giving officers crisis intervention training. Two of the biggest are the changed attitudes of officers to people who are experiencing a mental health crisis. The other is the lowered cost to the community.
Officers who are well-trained to handle a crisis are not as likely to get into situations where their weapons are drawn or fired. They can empathize better with the people they deal with and find non-violent solutions.
The community wins having officers trained in how to handle a mental health crisis in two ways.
One, because they know how to quickly handle a mental health crisis call, officers will be back on the streets serving other members of the community in a short length of time.
Two, according to NAMI.com the cost of someone being taken by force and placed in a hospital situation is cut by one-third. That’s because officers can de-escalate the situation and community mental health providers can be used instead of expensive inpatient care.
Twice a year I help the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) police, sheriff and corrections officers. We help them understand how to deal with mental health crises they may meet while on the job. We do this by telling our stories and how we might present in a crisis. Some of us on the NAMI speaker panel live with a mental health condition, and others have loved ones who have disorders where the police have gotten involved.
To be honest, before my first training I was frightened. Although I have never had a negative experience with a police officer, I was intimidated by their badges and weapons. However, not long after beginning to speak to the fine people who serve the community, I began to understand that they are just people with badges. They have families and lives, and they lay everything on the line helping the people of our communities.
Are there bad apples? Of course. No matter what your demographic, there are always those who do things that the rest of society frowns upon.
In crisis intervention training, officers learn, and so does the NAMI panel, on how vital connecting on a human level can be.
Next time you encounter a police officer, make sure to thank them for their service. Also, if you find yourself dealing with someone with a mental health crisis, remember that there is training going on right now to help officers to help you.
“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increase the burden: It is easier to say,‘My tooth is aching’ than to say,‘My heart is broken.’“