Since the closure of the Mendocino County’s Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF) in 1999, law enforcement and medical professionals have been carrying the burden of psychiatric crises in the county. A psychiatric or mental health crisis (called a “5150”) is when a person is at the risk of harming him or herself, or is considered a danger to someone else.
In Mendocino County, 417 mental health crises occurred in 2015. The rising emergency room visits due to psychiatric crises have strained the resources available in the county and have forced the authorities to find out ways to respond better to people in crisis. During a mental health crisis, a person with psychosis and other symptoms of mental disorder is often in contact with law enforcement agencies and the way police officers respond is important as it can either diffuse or worsen the situation.
In a major development, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said on Jan. 26, 2017, that the department would stop responding to crisis calls unless the individual is a danger to someone else. Thus, now Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office will only respond to calls that involve a threat of violence.
Allman said that after training, first responders, medical staff, 911 dispatchers and workers at mental health crisis services could direct people in need of immediate psychiatric care to the correct place. He also said that it would be wrong to assume that every person who is having a crisis or who has a mental illness is dangerous.
Changing the way law enforcement responds to people with mental illness
Police officers are not equipped or trained to deal with mental illness, and they have limited resources to handle such situations. Law enforcement agencies are trained to protect themselves and consider the safety of other people in the community, so when they come into contact with a person with a mental health crisis, if he or she becomes a threat to other people, they will try to contain the threat and prevent harm to others.
As a result, many people who have mental health crises have not been treated with the most sensitivity by law enforcement agencies and many people have ended up being put behind prisons. An example of a crisis situation is when people experience their first psychotic episode – these individuals might be agitated, paranoid or have symptoms like hallucinations and delusions, which can lead to irrational or odd behavior. If a police officer does not understand that a person is mentally ill, the officer can come up with a case for disobedience.
Understanding crisis intervention training
Crisis intervention training (CIT) is a specialized training that teaches police officers how to recognize and assess when someone they are in contact with is experiencing symptoms of a mental illness so that they may appropriately respond to the situation.
Although not all officers receive this specialized training, law enforcement agencies across the country have increasingly recognized the need to train and provide education to police officers so they know how to peacefully resolve any situations that involve people with mental illnesses.
CIT helps train officers stay safe and prevent people with mental disorders from being incarcerated. Research has shown that CIT-trained officers are more effective at their jobs and are able to maintain safer communities.
Critics question Sheriff’s decision
Mendocino County Sheriff Department’s plan to stop responding to people with mental health crises if they are not dangerous seems to be out of the ordinary. Critics even consider this decision as immoral for someone who is in a desperate need for help. Yet, the questions that need to be pondered upon are – should police officers really be the ones responsible for handling people in such a fragile state, or should people trained adequately in crisis management and who understand mental illness be the first-line of contact to help people deal with these types of situations? Only contemplating such questions can lead to a solution that can benefit people with mental illness as well as the one’s responsible for ensuring safety of the people.
Sovereign Health of Arizona is a residential treatment facility located in Chandler, Arizona, that offers comprehensive treatment plans to women with mental illnesses like anxiety, depression and schizophrenia, substance use disorders and co-occurring disorders. For more information about the treatment at our Chandler facility, contact our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Amanda Habermann is a writer for Sovereign Health. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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