Powell officers receive instruction on how to deal with mental health crises

Posted 10/19/15

Responding police officers found the man “extremely agitated,” said Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt.

Things could have ended badly, but officers recognized the man was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and were able to help him …

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Powell officers receive instruction on how to deal with mental health crises

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Last spring, an active duty U.S. service member began low-crawling away from his Powell residence, intending to engage a group of people that he thought were coming coming to hurt his family.

Responding police officers found the man “extremely agitated,” said Powell Police Chief Roy Eckerdt.

Things could have ended badly, but officers recognized the man was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and were able to help him reach what Eckerdt calls “a moment of clarity.”

The man agreed to be handcuffed — even suggesting he also be shackled — and officers assisted in getting the man the help he needed.

“It definitely could have gone either way,” Eckerdt said recently. “It could have been a violent outcome versus a cooperative effort.”

He credits the peaceful resolution, in part, to the Crisis Intervention Team training his officers have received over the years.

The annual training in Park County features 40 hours of classes intended to help officers identify and appropriately respond to people who are in a mental illness crisis.

Without the proper training, someone acting out in a mental health crisis could be arrested as a criminal, when what they actually need is help, Eckerdt said.

“We all need to be held accountable for our actions,” the chief said. “However, somebody who’s in a mental health crisis, you put them in jail, they do their time, they’re going to come out, they’re still going to be in mental health crisis — and that’s going to repeat.”

The most recent Crisis Intervention Team training session was held last month.

CIT works in partnership with those in mental health care to provide a system of services that is friendly to the individuals with mental illness, family members, and the police officers.

Some of the instruction involves role playing and it sometimes includes help from people who have the mental illness being discussed.

As one example, trainees might be tasked with completing a crossword puzzle or a maze to illustrate schizophrenia. The twist is that they have to do it while a voice is piped in over headphones, constantly saying things like, “You’re stupid. This is dumb. What a waste of time,” Eckerdt said.

The chief said it teaches officers that someone with schizophrenia might not be ignoring them, it’s just that “the voices in their head are louder than yours.” Yelling at someone with the illness might not be helpful, but getting them to focus could be, Eckerdt said.

The crisis training has helped officers successfully resolve several situations in recent years, Eckerdt said. But even beyond that, he said it’s built relationships between police and mental health professionals — who can have very different perspectives.

“The person we deal with in the field is far different than who they have in their ... office,” Eckerdt said. “The time spent together in the classroom opens those lines of communication, so now mental health and law enforcement are talking to each other in order to get the end user the help that they need.”

Beth Gilb of Hope Counseling in Powell has been a presenter at some of the training sessions and she agrees they've spurred better collaboration between police and mental health professionals.

The licensed clinical social worker said she’s seen more mutual respect “for what we each do in the community and what each of our roles (are)” — which leads to “being able to really put our heads together ... to try to help somebody.”

One of the overarching goals of the training is “to provide a system of services that is friendly to the individuals with mental illness, family members, and the police officers,” said Rachel Williams, of the Prevention Management Organization of Wyoming in Cody.

When police believe someone is posing a threat to their self or others as a result of mental illness, Gilb said that open communication with mental health providers can be a big help.

For example, she said a social worker can learn what happened directly from the officer and follow-up with them after the crisis; something like, “OK, here's what happened with so-and-so. Thank you so much for bringing them to the E.R. They really were suicidal and I think we saved a life together,” Gilb said.

She’s seen that the officers in the Crisis Intervention Team classes want to learn — and that the training is important.

“If they haven’t been given these tools previously, then in some ways we can’t expect them to have known how to respond to somebody who does have a mental illness,” Gilb said.

In large police departments, they have Crisis Intervention Teams to handle all mental health calls.

“We don't have that luxury in rural America,” Eckerdt said. “Therefore, we had to try and train every officer in the department, because you never know who's going to be responding to that type of call.”

Two Powell officers went through last month's training at Northwest College. They were joined by officers from around the state — though Eckerdt said the ultimate goal is for other areas to host their own sessions and allow those officers to meet the mental health professionals in their own communities.

Gilb said said mental illness is more prevalent than people want to believe: some data indicates it affects one in four families.

Across the country, and specifically in Wyoming, Gilb thinks there’s an unhelpful “cowboy up” mentality when it comes to mental illness.

“People think, ‘oh you’re tougher, you don’t need to get help’ and things like that, but obviously it is a problem, because Wyoming always is right up there in the top three or four for suicide rates,” Gilb said.

She thinks the stigma is one of the biggest barriers to dealing with the problem. If the culture came to view treating mental illness just like cancer or heart problems, “then I think we would see a big decrease in suicides; we would see a big decrease in people acting out from their mental illness,” Gilb said.

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