Giving Officers the Tools to Respond Safely and Effectively to a Mental Health Crisis
“For certain individuals who have serious mental illnesses, we could practically use a stopwatch to record how many minutes it takes them to re-offend after they walk out of the jail,” reports one assistant jail administrator in Greater Minnesota. “They cycle in and out of the jail, and the underlying issues, like mental health, never get addressed.”
This scenario has become commonplace. Police officers have become the front line respondents to people with serious mental illnesses who are in crisis. Many Minnesota jails report that well over half of their inmates have mental illnesses. Nationwide, about 64% of jail detainees have mental illnesses.
There is little question as to why this has happened. Mental illnesses affect one in four adults in a given year, and about one in seventeen adults have a serious mental illness. “Due to reasons like stigma and lack of access to the mental health system, the average delay between experiencing symptoms and seeking help is ten years,” says Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Minnesota.
Meanwhile, many of these individuals will experience signs and symptoms that could easily lead to a 911 call—such as risk taking, impulsive behavior, aggression, paranoia, substance use, grandiosity, hallucinations, delusions, disordered thoughts, extreme mood swings and agitation.
Responding to a mental health crisis raises a long list of problems for law enforcement, who on average receive only zero to six hours of pre-service training in mental illness. Without adequate preparation and training to respond to a mental health crisis, the results can range anywhere from being ineffective
to being fatal. Officer injury, use of force, arrests and sending people to jail due to lack of better alternatives, hours spent in emergency rooms and even trouble with community relations are all problems officers can face when responding to a mental health crisis.