Keeping the mentally ill out of jail starts with police training

Policeman (wikimedia)

It's become well-established that much of the mental health care in the U.S. is handled by already over-burdened justice system staff.

As a nation, we tend to shove mental health problems behind walls in an attempt to hide them rather than deal with them. This needs to change.

The first step is making mental healthcare more accessible through more prevalent and affordable options. Recent changes in insurance requirements may help do that. But without enough practitioners, just making it easier to pay for won't solve the problem. So there is still work to be done on this front.

With the police being the most likely to respond to a mental health crisis, the next step is to have these first-responders able to understand what they're likely dealing with. We already ask a lot of many of our police officers, of course, and we cannot expect them to be trained psychologists. We can, however, expect them to at least recognize some of the signs and symptoms, even if it isn't until after the arrest has taken place (assuming the person is in physical danger or threatening others).

Training Police Officers in Mental Health

Police officers who are trained to understand what to expect and how to properly deal with the mentally ill are less likely to over-react and cause more harm than good.

In North Carolina, for example, some police officers are trained to handle mental illness. In one case, the officer was called and intervened not by arresting a schizophrenic man, but by driving him home to his family after seeing that the man was no danger to anyone and was merely being disruptive.

Crisis Intervention Team Training

The North Carolina program, called Crisis Intervention Team training, is a program meant to educate law enforcement personnel about the symptoms of mental illness and to keep the mentally ill from being unnecessarily incarcerated.

That CIT program was actually created in Tennessee in 1988 and has been slowly migrating to other states, with North Carolina starting theirs in 2005. A few other states have also adopted the program, which consists of about 40 hours of courses towards certification.

The program is designed to show officers how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness and how to communicate with those who are in crisis - the most likely time when officers will encounter them on the job. The training includes networking with local agencies and treatment centers to ensure that they have the resources available to care for the mentally ill they may encounter.

Through the course, officers will spend time in sessions with local providers as a way to get to know them as well as a way to learn from the front lines how mental illness affects people and what can be done to mitigate serious problems through de-escalation.

It's a good idea that, if coupled with an available network of mental health providers and an accessible mental health system, could radically reduce the number of mentally ill people being imprisoned for lack of a better solution.

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