On Mental Health and Poverty: CIT Training a Great Start; Building on Community Partnerships

The vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, do not hang out on street corners talking to themselves or make belligerent demands on passersby. But there are times, especially when a person with mental illness is not receiving treatment, that behaviors like these get the attention of police.

Talk to the parent of an adult with mental illness and you might hear a gut-wrenching story like this:

“My son was acting out, yelling for no apparent reason, threatening to harm us. We had no choice but to call the police.”

Ponder that last sentence. We had no choice but to call the police. These parents, in other words, are conceding there is no way to help their child except through the threat of force.

And make no mistake. This is what police are trained to do. Their protocols are designed to help them respond to criminal threats. They deal with potentially violent situations all the time. And although they are often able to defuse those situations without actually applying force, they carry the threat with them wherever they go. This is what we expect of them.

Until the last decade or so, law enforcement officials haven’t been specifically trained in techniques that could help someone in a mental health crisis avoid the escalation that leads to arrest, handcuffs and time behind bars — often for some low-level offense such as vagrancy or disturbing the peace.

The result? A lot of people with mental illness are housed in our jails and prisons, far removed from the support and treatment options they need to put their lives back together. The Wyandotte County jail estimates that about 40 percent of its inmates have some kind of mental health issue. Keep in mind that it costs $92 a day to house an inmate. If that person has a mental illness and requires medication, the cost can reach up to $400 a day.

Of course, the cost to the families and individuals experiencing a mental health crisis is immeasurable. How does one put a price tag on the sleepless nights and anxiety friends and loved ones experience in such a situation? How can one begin to understand the defeat and alienation an individual with mental illness feels when placed behind bars?

Fortunately, communities across America have begun to address this problem, and I’m proud to now count Wyandotte County among them. Beginning this month, the Wyandot Inc. family of organizations will be collaborating with area law enforcement agencies to implement the community’s first-ever Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training.

The training gives law enforcement officers the tools they need to find help for those who come to their attention because of a mental health crisis. It teaches officers how to identify when someone is in crisis and how they can better interact with that person. They learn about specific mental health diagnoses, the side effects of medications and how to de-escalate volatile situations.

The goal is to reduce the chance of a physical confrontation and increase the chance of getting the individual into treatment — rather than sending them to jail. But the week-long training, founded by the Memphis police department in 1988, not only helps the individual with a mental illness, it carries benefits to officers as well.

“Our hope is to provide greater assistance to those in crisis, reduce recidivism, lower crime rates and increase officer safety by instructing appropriate handling of clients,” said Captain Douglas B. Parisi, Police Academy commander in the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department.

Please know that this training is just getting under way in Wyandotte County. The first class will have 25 to 30 law enforcement officials in it (plans call for holding two to three trainings a year). Also understand that CIT is just one piece of a larger system change required to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jail. Mental health diversion programs are another piece (a bill that would provide the framework for one statewide is making the rounds in Topeka), as are tools such as mental health courts and post-sentence re-entry programs

Of course, the resources and staffing needed for these other options aren’t yet in place. But the CIT training that’s about to get under way is a great place to start, laying the foundation for what should become a stronger partnership between our mental health and law enforcement communities.

Many thanks to Mark Wiebe and Wyandot Inc. for their permission to post this on our blog. This was featured in Wyandot Inc.’s eNewsletter.

Health Forward Foundation
2300 Main Street, Suite 304
Kansas City, MO 64108
(816) 241-7006