The Reality of Mental Health Emergency Response in the U.S.

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath

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In October, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and other wellness organizations will participate in Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW). The event takes place from October 1-7th, and was established to raise awareness about mental illness. Over the course of the week, organizations and individuals will help fight the mental illness stigma, support those affected by mental illness in their search for help, and push for equal healthcare. Many will get involved during MIAW, and for law enforcement and other public safety officials, the initiative shouldn’t be overlooked.

The Burden of Mental Health Underfunding

The United States is in a mental health crisis. Over 40 million men and women suffer from some form of mental illness and public health institutions and treatment centers are universally underfunded. The number of individuals coming forward with mental illness or addiction struggles continues to increase, as cuts to psychiatric treatment centers and other resources also rise. Without the proper resources, when the more serious symptoms of a mental health emergency kick in, a person’s behavior might be mistaken as erratic or dangerous, leading to the incarceration of nearly 2 million people per year instead of sending them to a designated treatment facility. As a result, law enforcement is often the only available resource for those experiencing a mental health emergency.

A Better Mental Health Emergency Response

Many public officials have started to recognize the effects of the burdensome mental health system and have taken steps to reform police response to a mental health emergency. The One Mind Campaign started by the International Association of Chiefs of Police hopes to encourage successful interactions between law enforcement and people struggling with mental illness. Nearly 180 police departments from around the nation have joined the campaign and have committed to establishing four practices over a 12-36 month time. These practices are straightforward, and the plan for implementation can be adapted to suit state and local agencies.

1. Establish a clear relationship with local mental health organizations. There are national organizations like NAMI and Active Minds that spearhead campaigns in local areas, but independent organizations can be found in local communities as well.

2. Develop and implement a model policy addressing police response to persons affected by mental illness.

3. Consider an additional 9-1-1 information service to provide call takers and first responders with more insight into the mental state of a 9-1-1 caller and how to best approach the situation before arriving at the scene.

4. Train and certify 100% of your agency’s sworn officers (and non-sworn in staff such as emergency dispatchers) in Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety. For more information, or to sign up for a First Aid class, visit: https://www.mentalhealthfirstaid.org/i-pledge/.

5. Provide crisis intervention classes for at least 20 percent of your agency’s sworn staff (and non-sworn in staff such as emergency dispatchers) to better prepare members to de-escalate situations in the field.

Join the Fight Against Mental Illness Stigma

Use this MIAW to look into resources to improve response to mental health emergencies and build awareness. Consider joining the One Mind campaign, leveraging technology that can help provide critical information before an interaction between first responders and someone with a mental health illness, or create your own mental health awareness program. Be sure to continue spreading the word on social media using #IntoMentalHealth.

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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