How neighbors can help cops improve mental health response

How you can help the police respond to mental health crises

  • Cheryl Frauen of Glendale Heights listens during a workshop about ways the community can help police respond better during mental health crises.

      Cheryl Frauen of Glendale Heights listens during a workshop about ways the community can help police respond better during mental health crises. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

 
 

Police officers in increasing numbers are training to be a calming presence during mental health crises, but the responsibility shouldn't fall on their shoulders alone, an expert says.

"The reality is the community has a big part to play in all of this," said Patricia Doyle, who runs a mental health training company called Vision for Change.

"It's not a police-only issue. It's a community issue, and we've got to work together on it."

One department has partnered with Vision for Change to offer a workshop that appears to be the first of its kind. In a session late last month, police in Glendale Heights offered tips on how residents can help officers more smoothly defuse a mental health emergency before it turns into a tragedy or arrest.

The workshop grew out of a feeling among Glendale Heights officers that more families are joining the list of callers who repeatedly need help when someone becomes mentally unstable.

"I can feel we're going to the same houses often and there are so many new people," said Sgt. Kelley Darre, who organized the free workshop. "It just doesn't seem like they're getting any help."

Other departments are getting the same feeling. Mental health calls seem to be increasing, police leaders say, and the number of people with mental health conditions in jails and prisons is concerning -- the Illinois Department of Corrections reported 24 percent of inmates were on its mental health caseload last year.

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The workshop in Glendale Heights could be a trendsetter as other suburban police departments say they're considering more community education. The more information callers can provide police in any emergency, the better. But officers say this is especially true when someone is in mental crisis mode.

"The public really becomes the eyes and ears of the police department," Buffalo Grove Deputy Chief Roy Bethge said. "That partnership is everything. It's the only way we can be successful."

Glendale Heights police Sgt. Kelley Darre tells residents at a workshop what officers need to know when someone calls to report a mental health crisis.
  Glendale Heights police Sgt. Kelley Darre tells residents at a workshop what officers need to know when someone calls to report a mental health crisis. - Paul Michna | Staff Photographer
How to help police

When someone is in mental strife, the main thing officers want to know is what will calm the person down.

But first they need the details. Doyle and Darre advised a small group of Glendale Heights residents at their May training session to be clear and direct with both dispatchers and responding officers. They offered these guidelines:

• Tell the dispatcher this is a mental health crisis and include the diagnosis for the person's condition if there is one.

• Point out if the person under duress has access to any weapons -- even something as typically harmless as a pencil or umbrella.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

• Mention whether the person has been using drugs or alcohol and if he or she has taken any prescribed medication.

• If it will help avoid panic, request that officers "come in quiet" without lights flashing and sirens blaring; some departments can do this, Doyle says, but others must follow policies that dictate light and siren use.

When officers arrive:

• Repeat this is a mental health crisis. Explain what might have caused the situation and what is happening in the immediate moment.

• Reiterate details about the diagnosis, medications, drug and alcohol use and access to weapons.

• Make officers aware of what can help the person regain calm. It could be as simple as his or her favorite toy, favorite food or whether he or she likes police cars or finds them frightful.

Buffalo Grove officer Meghan Hansen said officers want to know anything that can reinstate routine or give an element of control.

Tips on the preferences and phobias of people with mental illness are especially helpful the first time a family or neighbor needs to call police.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"You do see the same people over and over again and you can get acclimated to what might set them off or calm them down," said Tasha Polites, a Glendale Heights officer who has completed a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team program that's known as the gold standard for mental health training.

The program helps officers gain empathy for people with mental illnesses and learn how to get them help, treating them more as patients than criminals.

"Sometimes it's as easy as your voice," Polites said. "It can be soothing."

Even before a disaster strikes, relatives of people with mental illness can help police be better prepared to respond.

Stop by the police department, Doyle advises. Ask to meet any officers who have completed Crisis Intervention Team training. Let the officers and the person with a mental illness get to know each other on a good day. Then, when things go wrong, they won't be strangers.

"It takes a little pressure off the police to realize this should be a collaborative, community effort," Doyle said.

Michael Gonzalez of La Grange talks with Patricia Doyle, founder and president of a mental health training company called Vision for Change, during a workshop in Glendale Heights. Doyle outlined ways the community can help police improve mental health emergency response.
  Michael Gonzalez of La Grange talks with Patricia Doyle, founder and president of a mental health training company called Vision for Change, during a workshop in Glendale Heights. Doyle outlined ways the community can help police improve mental health emergency response. - Paul Michna | Staff Photographer
Blessing in disguise?

Police are taking steps to increase resources and partnerships as less state funding is being paid to social service agencies that provide mental health support. This is leading officers to called upon more often as what Cary Deputy Chief Scott Naydenoff calls the "safety net for society."

Doyle said this could be a blessing in disguise if it leads to more collaboration instead of isolation.

"The state funding breaking down is forcing us as communities to talk to one another," she said, "so we can start helping each other again."

In Cary, Naydenoff got certified as an instructor to teach a one-day mental health awareness program called Mental Health First Aid. In Buffalo Grove, the department is getting more officers trained as Crisis Intervention Team members and passing along the strategies that have succeeded in resolving mental difficulties suffered by repeat callers.

Residents attending the Glendale Heights workshop learned their police department can be a conduit to resources such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness, whose DuPage County branch provided information at the session about a new community center where residents can go if they need to decompress.

The Living Room, a facility at 115 N. County Farm Road in Wheaton, offers a calming alternative to a hospital emergency department, where people experiencing mental crisis can talk with a peer counselor who's been through it before.

Glendale Heights officers also affirmed their commitment to be there for families and neighbors of people with mental illness, even when it seems they're calling umpteen times.

"You call us every time you need us," Darre told one resident concerned with a neighbor's problematic behavior. "We're there to help."

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