By Christopher Thomas
Something as simple as body language can be the key to helping solve a crisis involving a person with mental illness.
“(Officers) often have their hands on their guns with crossed arms,” Katie Murphy of Coastal Care Therapy said. “An open stance goes a long way in deescalating a crisis. Get on level if they’re sitting instead of bearing down on them.”
This is one of several tips offered by Crisis Intervention Team training, a program that seeks to teach law enforcement how to identify the signs of a mental health crisis and help deescalate it.
Local involvement in the program began in 2009 when the Jacksonville Police Department and Albert J. Ellis Airport Police Department sent officers to receive training. The Onslow County Sheriff’s Office followed suit the next year. As of the end of 2012, 13 law enforcement agencies in Carteret and Onslow Counties have officers that are certified in the program. Onslow County Sheriff Ed Brown said the program has become a major presence in his agency. In October, four more of his deputies passed the course. Brown said CIT training helps his deputies fulfill the role society needs them to fill.
“We’re society’s knights in shining armor, and we have to be ready for all issues,” Brown said. “There are a lot of crisis here involving people who have mental issues. We need to be ready to handle that.”
One of the people credited with bringing the method to the southeastern part of the state is Ernst Hayman, a retired chemist from Milwaukee who has called Eastern North Carolina Home since 1991. Hayman also has a son with schizophrenia.
While attending a conference for the National Alliance of Mental Health (NAMI) in 2006, Hayman said he found out about CIT and in Wake County sat in on a course, which is usually reserved for law enforcement, and became certified in the program.
“I was sold and I wanted to bring it back here,” Hayman said.
Hayman brought the system east of I-95 and it caught the attention of what was then called the Southeastern Center for Mental Health Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services where the course was first taught in 2008. Murphy of Coastal Care said the program not only gives officers the tools they need to help deescalate a potentially harmful situation, but to break down social barriers and foster a greater understanding between law enforcement and those who suffer from mental health problems.
“If someone’s falling out because their sugar dropped, that’s one thing, but if someone’s falling out because they have a mental illness, we have a different reaction,” Murphy said. “This does a lot to break down stigma.”
If officers ever find themselves in a situation where they need additional help in defusing it, mental health representatives are available to officers and the people they’re assisting. According to Murphy, these representatives, which are part of a unit called the “mobile crisis dispatch” are on call all day, every day and are an essential part of the program.
“If something has escalated to the point where 911 is called or there is concern of a threat to self or others, right then, when mobile crisis answers the phone,” Murphy said. “They go right to assist officer to see how they can help.
“They are the lifeline of CIT training.”