After many hours, a suicidal man is “talked down” off a bridge when a police officer makes a connection with him through the man’s love of his pet cats. A man in crisis with schizophrenia who will not get into the back of the squad car is simply asked by one of the officers on the scene, “Why won’t you?” When the man explains that he sees “acid” on the ground, the officer goes to a nearby garbage can, and with some discarded newspapers, lays a path of paper over the “acid” allowing the disturbed man to get into the car without violence or trauma. A man with schizo-effective disorder has his negative image of police changed when an officer, instead of confronting him in anger, asks with concern: “How can I help you, Sir?” As I witness this Nation’s continuing “march of folly” as we dismantle our human services networks and despair at it’s “penny-wise and pound-foolish” strategies that are costing such a terrible toll in money and human suffering, I’m also seeing new hope with part of the system that traditionally has been a problem: Minnesota’’s Police Departments. For decades the police have largely ignored the pleas from professionals and consumers for updated training, new tactics and a philosophy and attitude that matched step with the new medical and stigma breakthroughs. But with the recent tragedies of six Twin Cities consumers being killed during police interaction, jails across the state filled with consumers the jail staff have no idea how to treat, with the two jail suicides of prisoners with MI, police state-wide are no longer able to ignore the growing problem of mental illness in their communities.
Over the last three years I’ve had a chance to work collaboratively on police training around the state with a stellar group of people: Psychologist Ed Neimi and Dr. Peter Miller of Duluth’s Human Development Centers, Dr. Dallas Erdman of HCMC, Dr.Bill Clapp of Edina, Kim Anderson, Kyle White and Helen Newell of NAMI, Agents Julie Brunzell and Linda Fenney of Minnesota’s BCA (Bureau of Criminal Apprehension). But especially with consumer speaker Melanie Groves of NAMI-Hennepin County, Betty Klicker of the Consumer/Survivor Network who has organized the majority of these workshops, and Dr. Ron Groat of Edina, who has joined me in over 80% of those trainings. Together we’ve had the opportunity to work with over 30 of Minnesota’s Police departments, with dozens more in the works.
The four-hour training workshop we’ve developed is roughly divided into two parts with two equally important goals: talking about the medical aspects of mental illness to open the officers’ minds, then telling our own stories as consumers and people to open their hearts.
During the “Mental Illness 101” phase from Dr. Groat, officers are brought up to date on the biochemical diseases of the brain, what their symptoms and treatments are, what medications they might be taking, and most of all, that their illnesses are real and terrible. We share personal stories from our consumer point of view, telling the officers what has worked for us in our own struggles, what helped in crisis situations, letting them talk with us and ask us questions in a non-crisis setting, letting them see us and relate to us simply as people. We use professional actors from our “Tilting At Windmills” consumer theater company to role-play, simulating some of the more common calls the officers and dispatchers will be faced on: an elderly person with Alzheimer’s in a fender-bender, a person with schizophrenia acting in a strange way, a depressed or intoxicated person who is suicidal. We use audio “sensory” tapes to simulate the experience of schizophrenia. We go through tactics and strategies on a mental health call, helping them to distinguish when a situation is a criminal one or a medical one. How to assess the risk of violence and how to de-escalate intense situations. Simple tips from lowered eye contact, vocals and body language, giving people space, not rushing a situation, that time is on their side, to more complex information: how do you know if a man is on “speed” or in a manic phase of bi-polar disorder?
We give them the warning signs of suicide, and talk about the many myths that still surround self harm. We work with the dispatchers on what crucial information relating to a person’s mental health might be crucial in a call. We do workshops on “Tazers” and other non-lethal equipment and tactics. We have local resources and MI experts to talk about help in their own communities. And sometimes all we can do is commiserate with them on defects in the System.
Most of all we emphasize kindness and compassion. How what they do and say can make the difference between a hopeful night of help or a terrible wound of additional trauma. We tell the officers again and again that they are heroes, that they are on the front lines, in the “trenches” and deal everyday with crises and traumas that are heartbreaking and life-threatening, and mostly, without training, they do it with creativity and levelheadedness, even with humor and compassion. They have mere seconds to decide life and death situations. We hold them to a high standard—and that is the only way to help people reach those standards we set upon them. Like many people with MI, I have personally experienced unpleasant situations with untrained police officers in my own 30 year struggle with bi-polar disorder. But like so many of the consumers I’ve interviewed, I’ve also had my life saved by good officers. Our training team focuses on that positive, on the basic humanity of these officers. From meeting with and working with many police over the last three years, I believe that when tragedy has happened it’s not from any evil impulse or hatred on the part of the police, but from fear, uncertainty and lack of training and knowledge. With our “consumer-driven” training, we try to take away that fear and give them that crucial training and knowledge, new tools to serve and protect people who are ill and in crisis.
Pete Feigal is a national consumer speaker and writer