John Zurn is a published author and former English teacher who also has spent much of his life battling mental illness.
The 59-year-old Geneva man says it wasn't until he got the right diagnosis and medication that his health gradually turned around. Before that, he was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and, occasionally, jail.
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"It really, really took a long time," Zurn said of his recovery from a severe form of bipolar disorder. "You can imagine how good it feels for me, after all these years, to help people and to be able to help the police."
Zurn was among a handful of volunteers from the National Alliance on Mental Illness who shared their stories this month with about 800 police officers from across DuPage County. The series of free training sessions in Addison, sponsored by the DuPage Chiefs of Police Association, aimed to educate officers on the most common types of mental illness and arm them with strategies to be most effective when their paths cross on the job.
"We hope it will have a direct impact on how an officer addresses the next situation involving someone suffering from a mental illness," Oak Brook Police Chief James Kruger said. "That next call could be when they leave this class."
A survey by NAMI's DuPage chapter shows local police encounter weekly nearly 800 adults and 170 minors who may be mentally ill. For their training, officers learned about signs, symptoms and treatments, as well as how to communicate with those suffering delusions or hallucinations and how to calm them. There also were informational courses on community resources and the 18th Judicial Circuit's Mental Illness Court Alternative Program.
Erica Sokol, a licensed professional counselor and program director at NAMI of DuPage, praised local law enforcement for their partnership. She said the training supports a broader effort to inform the public about mental illness, reduce its stigma, and see it recognized for what it is -- a brain disorder.
"I would like to see them take away a sense of empathy and a different perspective," she said.
Police are seeing an increase in the number of calls with a mental illness component, likely because advancements in medicine have made it possible for more people to be treated at home rather than in hospitals, according to Kruger.
He said the police association was already looking into awareness training when the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings happened, and that only "solidified our decision to move forward."
"We saw how vitally important this is," he said. "We're very proud to be on the forefront of the issue."
Kruger said the recent training sessions were "really just an introduction to the topic." The association will next participate in crisis intervention teams and higher levels of training.
For Zurn, who says meditation, creative writing and jogging aided in his eventual recovery, that's good news.
"In general, the police have got a really difficult job to do," he said. "I think they simply recognize the need. It's a major problem, and they genuinely want to help."
For more information on NAMI of DuPage, call (630) 752-0066 or visit www.namidupage.org.