Mental illness will affect approximately 50 percent of adults in the United States during their lifetimes, according to the Center for Disease Control. While the stigma and barriers to treatment associated with common mental health illnesses are decreasing, certain severe mental illnesses that can manifest in violent outbursts continue to face obstacles to public education, awareness, and treatment. The prison system has become a default holding facility for those individuals with severe cases of mental illness, who are three times more likely to be in jail or prison than in a mental health facility. However, law enforcement officials are very seldom trained on how to handle a case where mental illness may be a contributing factor. Police officers are trained to respond to violent criminals, and the tactics and methodologies employed can save their lives and the lives of others.
“Police are notorious for the A personality type. They walk into a situation. They gain control of it. It’s their call now. They’re in charge,” states Officer Ned Bandoske of the San Antonio Police Department’s mental health squad.
However, such a dominant approach in a mental health emergency can prove at the best counterproductive and at the worst dangerous when dealing with someone in a state of psychosis. “Without the appropriate amount of mental health training for police,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) argues, “rash stigmatization and misinterpretation of the intentions of the mentally ill can cause vital errors and ultimately make the difference between life and death.” Even minor misdemeanors or offenses can escalate and result in an arrest. Because police officers are required to wait to return to patrol until the arrestee is booked or triaged at an Emergency Department, simply taking these individuals to a jail, which can drastically decrease the wait time for an officer, can be a tempting option. Having a system in place to train officers to more appropriately respond to mental health emergencies so as to de-escalate the situation will result in fewer arrests and fewer bookings. The effort to better train law enforcement professionals to handle mental health emergencies is “gaining steam.”
Approximately 15 percent of police departments nationwide offer some form of crisis intervention training. One such program in San Antonio, “Smart Justice,” focuses on two areas of deficiency: training and treatment centers. Smart Justice requires that all officers take a 40-hour crisis intervention course that teaches participants how to handle and de-escalate mental health crises. As part of this program, San Antonio has also built a Restoration Center; a separate facility with a 16-bed psych unit, a medical clinic, and a sobering room. A nurse is always on site to immediately check on the individual brought in with the goal of decreasing the turnaround time for cops to get back out on patrol. Such a comprehensive program can take years to develop, and might be initially cost prohibitive for many counties who face budget concerns. “Most law enforcement agencies can’t afford to train everyone,” states Laura Usher, a CIT program manager at NAMI.
“They’d have to pay someone else overtime, and that can be a big expense, especially if you’re a small office.”
Locum tenens agencies, such as Barton Associates, can help law enforcement agencies more appropriately address mental health emergencies in a cost effective and accessible way. By providing the necessary qualified medical health professionals on a temporary basis, locum tenens is great solution to assist counties in maximizing treatment and holding options for individuals suffering from mental illness in the justice system. Barton Associates is perhaps even more capable of providing comprehensive services to law enforcement agencies through Barton Telehealth. Barton Telehealth is a telemedicine system which enables easy, electronic access to healthcare providers, including after-hours care and specialty consultations. By addressing the financial and geographical barriers to mental health training and treatment post arrest, locum tenens agencies and psychiatric telemedicine can go a long way towards altering the way in which we handle mental health based emergency situations.