In February 2010, off-duty police officer Joseph C. Coffey was driving by a pond when he noticed a car partially submerged in it. He got out of his car and entered the water. He couldn’t open the front door, so he climbed through the back. There was a woman inside. As Coffey prepared to get her out, he began to sense that this wasn’t an accident.
The woman wasn’t panicking. Instead, she was crying. She started talking about her personal problems.
Coffey had been trained for this. In Warwick, Rhode Island, where he oversees frontline patrol officers, he had developed the department’s crisis intervention team and co-authored a manual on Mental Health First Aid for the National Council for Behavioral Health for use in law enforcement trainings. The Warwick Police Department has taught MHFA at its academy since 2008. So far, more than 11,000 officers have been trained.
That night in the pond, Coffey knew to listen more than he talked. He knew he had to work quickly, to keep the woman from harming herself further. And he knew to remind her that he was there to help her rather than to demand anything of her.
“[Reassuring the victim] is not always the first thing that a police officer may do, coming upon a scene,” he says. “I used my first name. I made her feel that her crisis was real to her … I offered her a blanket when I was able to reach her. [By comforting her], I was able to delay her from her intentions.”
That year, Coffey received an award for preventing a suicide.
One in every four Americans experiences mental illness — a burden that carries heavy social, financial and emotional costs. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the No. 1 cause of disability in the world. “More people are suffering and miss more time from work from depression compared to any other medical problem,” explains Bryan Gibb, Director of Public Education for the National Council for Behavioral Health. Untreated depression, he adds, is also the No. 1 cause of suicide — and at more than 40,000 US suicides a year, “that’s 40,000 people who die from mental illness.”