GUEST COLUMN: Helping Police Defuse Mental Health Crises

By: Betsy Schwartz

February 18, 2017 Updated: February 18, 2017 at 4:10 am

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A knife-wielding boy lunged at Police Lt. Daniel Gannon. But instead of using force, Lt. Gannon calmed the boy, kept him contained and persuaded him to drop the knife.

Although he could have used his weapon, Gannon relied on another tool – the Mental Health First Aid training he received a few months earlier. He credited the training as a key factor in his ability to safely resolve this potentially violent incident.

Too often, law enforcement officers are the de facto first responders to mental health crises, stepping outside the bounds of their job descriptions and facing situations they should never have to face.

Sadly, police encounters with people in mental health crises do not always end as well as they did for Gannon and this young man. In fact, a Washington Post study found that a quarter of those killed in officer-involved shootings were experiencing an emotional crisis.

Police officers are called to respond to emergency situations, no matter how difficult. At a time when our nation’s mental health system faces increasing pressure, police too often find themselves on the front lines dealing with people in crisis. Mental Health First Aid training can help facilitate a better understanding of mental illness and addictions and provide effective response options to de-escalate incidents without compromising safety.

That is why a new commitment from the International Association of Chiefs of Police to train 100 percent of their officers in Mental Health First Aid means that police can receive this vital training.

The “One Mind Campaign” is a bold new program that will create and maintain partnerships with law enforcement agencies, the mental health community and other key stakeholders. The campaign’s central component is a commitment to train 100 percent of sworn officers and selected non-sworn staff, including dispatchers, in Mental Health First Aid.