About one in 10 police calls involves a person with mental illness, making police the nation’s de facto first responders to mental health crises. Although police are on the front lines, they often do not have the training to recognize and appropriately respond when an emergency involves a mental health crisis.
When police officers in Providence, Rhode Island, encountered a distressed young man brandishing a knife, the situation could have gone horribly wrong. The youth ignored officers’ commands to drop the knife and began advancing on them.
But the officers didn’t draw their weapons. Instead, Lt. Daniel Gannon drew on his training in Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety. He spoke to the young man in a reassuring voice about his desire to help.
Eventually, the young man dropped the knife. Instead of being charged with a crime, he agreed to be evaluated at a local hospital. Gannon’s reaction may well have saved both their lives that day.
Currently, one in four people killed by police in 2017 were mentally ill. Police officers join law enforcement to help people and support their communities, but when officers aren’t prepared to respond effectively to a behavioral health crisis, they put themselves and the individual who is mentally ill at risk. They need training to help respond to those affected by mental illnesses and addictions.
The National Council for Behavioral Health offers Mental Health First Aid, an actionable public safety training program to help officers better understand mental illnesses so they can safely deescalate crises without compromising safety. The program also focuses on early intervention, diversion and referral to clinical support.
Recognizing the effectiveness of this training, the International Association of Chiefs of Police instituted the One Mind Campaign, which includes a commitment to train and certify 100 percent of their agency’s sworn officers in Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety. To date, 246 law enforcement agencies around the country have taken the One Mind Pledge.
Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety ensures that every officer in the field – even those without specialized Crisis Intervention Team training – has tools to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations. Mental Health First Aid training has also helped many officers in their personal lives by providing strategies to help themselves, their families and their partners.
For the last four years, federal funding has supported Mental Health First Aid training for individuals who work with youth. Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety gives police additional tools to deescalate an incident and to connect the person to needed care.
J. THOMAS MANGER and LINDA ROSENBERG, WASHINGTON
Editor’s note: Manger is president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. Rosenberg is president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health.