GUEST COLUMN: Helping police defuse mental health crises

By: Betsy Schwartz
February 18, 2017 Updated: February 24, 2017 at 7:23 am
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A knife-wielding boy lunged at Police Lt. Daniel Gannon. But instead of using force, Lt. Gannon calmed the boy, kept him contained and persuaded him to drop the knife.

Although he could have used his weapon, Gannon relied on another tool - the Mental Health First Aid training he received a few months earlier. He credited the training as a key factor in his ability to safely resolve this potentially violent incident.

Too often, law enforcement officers are the de facto first responders to mental health crises, stepping outside the bounds of their job descriptions and facing situations they should never have to face.

Sadly, police encounters with people in mental health crises do not always end as well as they did for Gannon and this young man. In fact, a Washington Post study found that a quarter of those killed in officer-involved shootings were experiencing an emotional crisis.

Police officers are called to respond to emergency situations, no matter how difficult. At a time when our nation's mental health system faces increasing pressure, police too often find themselves on the front lines dealing with people in crisis. Mental Health First Aid training can help facilitate a better understanding of mental illness and addictions and provide effective response options to de-escalate incidents without compromising safety.

That is why a new commitment from the International Association of Chiefs of Police to train 100 percent of their officers in Mental Health First Aid means that police can receive this vital training.

The "One Mind Campaign" is a bold new program that will create and maintain partnerships with law enforcement agencies, the mental health community and other key stakeholders. The campaign's central component is a commitment to train 100 percent of sworn officers and selected non-sworn staff, including dispatchers, in Mental Health First Aid.

Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety is an eight-hour course designed for police officers, first responders, corrections officers and other public safety professionals. Just as CPR helps people assist someone having a heart attack, this course provides tools to help identify, understand and appropriately support someone experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis.

Mental Health First Aid is making a difference in police departments around the country. It has helped officers better identify the signs of mental illness and improve their knowledge and understanding of mental illnesses.

In Rhode Island, several months after police received Mental Health First Aid training, officers responded to a man with schizophrenia who had barricaded himself in his apartment after breaking into a neighbor's house. The responding officers applied their training and within an hour, calmly coaxed the man out of his apartment, getting him to a hospital for evaluation.

We're seeing the success of Mental Health First Aid reflected in statistics. For example, since New Mexico started training its officers, the number of police-involved shootings in Albuquerque involving people with indications of mental health issues has dropped from 50 percent in 2013 to just one in 2016.

While the International Association of Chiefs of Police encourages police forces nationwide to receive Mental Health First Aid training, the National Council for Behavioral Health will continue working to make Mental Health First Aid as common as CPR. More than 780,000 Americans - from educators to faith leaders to Former first lady Michelle Obama - have been trained. They form part of a movement that is changing how America responds to mental health crises.

Providing Mental Health First Aid training to police officers in every corner of the country will be a win-win for law enforcement officials and the people they serve. Together with the hundreds of thousands of everyday people who have taken this training, police officers can make an impact in the lives of some of our nation's most vulnerable citizens.

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Schwartz is vice president, public education and strategic initiatives, for National Council for Behavioral Health.

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