The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that one in five people will be affected by mental illness in their lifetime. 

According to Officer Mark Stephens, the Brentwood Police Department receives a large number of calls involving people struggling with mental disorders. Stephens is one of six members of the department’s crisis intervention team that is trained to handle these difficult circumstances. 

Under the leadership of  Capt. Richard Hickey, the Brentwood Police Department recently initiated a crisis-intervention program.

Tommy Walsh, assistant police chief, says the program has helped officers “better deal with folks we make contact with who are suffering from a mental health crisis.”

The six CIT officers went through a special 40-hour NAMI-certified training course to understand different types of mental illnesses they may encounter and learn the skills for de-escalating a mental illness crisis.

Stephens, a former Scottsdale, Arizona, police officer, was already familiar with the program when he joined the BPD almost three years ago. Years earlier he was among the officers trained when Scottsdale’s department initiated a specialized response program for mental illness calls.

“I wanted to genuinely help people,” he said. “To do that, you’ve got to understand them. Mental illness can be scary, and families with a mentally ill person have difficulties.”

Statistics show that people with mental illness typically don’t commit crimes. The crimes they do commit, such as disorderly conduct, are generally a result of the illness. 

Stephens said that people who have schizophrenia do strange things and have a difficult time hearing and processing commands because they have too much going on in their head. Often they have auditory and visual hallucinations, which can cause erratic behavior, sometimes leading to criminal behavior. 

Schizophrenia is like a switch, Stephens explained. One day a person is normal and then something — stress, substance abuse, trauma — trips the switch. 

Depression is legitimate and is also considered a mental illness. Autism is more behavioral, Stephens said. Often people with autism don’t relate well to other people and don’t like physical contact.

“Handcuffing can really escalate the situation,” he added. “We need to be familiar with the symptoms.”

Dispatchers who receive calls regarding someone who may be out of control or acting strangely are trained to ask, if they aren’t told, whether the person is mentally ill. That helps the police department send an officer trained in handling such incidents.

According to Stephens, officers trained at a police academy traditionally shout and sometimes try to intimidate to get a person’s attention and gain control of situations. But with a person suffering a mental dysfunction, there is already enough “noise” in their head, so, just the opposite is needed.

“There are so many other opportunities to actually genuinely change a life,” Stephens said. “When a family has to call the police and we come in nice, calm, helpful and with information about resources, that gives a family hope. They’re in crisis, and they need help dealing with it.”

During that time, they may have committed a crime, but it was committed under the influence of the illness, he explained. To defuse the situation, the responding officer works to make eye contact and get the person to focus on him/her and his/her voice rather than the noise in their head.

“We don’t feed into their hallucinations,,” Stephens said. “We acknowledge them and say, ‘I’m not seeing that.’” 

The officers articulate the probable cause for their involvement and actual danger and arrange to get them to the hospital for involuntary commitment. 

“What good is it to take them to jail?” he said. “Truly mentally ill people are victims more than criminals. Mental illness is hard to manage. It takes constant work to manage.”

Stephens has discovered much of what he learned about the treatment of the mentally ill has helped him in his regular police duties. In the 11 years he has been in law enforcement, he has arrested more than 1,000 people and has used force only six to 10 times. 

“Policing is a lot like parenting,” he said. “People don’t really change that much (when they become adults). Kids are irrational, selfish, immature, and that’s what drives a lot of crime.” 

Carole Robinson may be contacted at crobinson@williamsonherald.com

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