Daily Archives: June 11, 2014

Mental Health First Responders; More Qualified for a Crisis than Police

Did you know that in the event of a mental health emergency in America, calling the police may not be the ideal move to make?

Living in Seattle with a mental illness that has involved psychosis and potentially homicidal urges has often left me incredibly concerned about my own safety. I’m sure you’re thinking, “that can’t be right, after what you just described shouldn’t you be worried about harming the people around you?” 

I do, in fact it is something I am constantly hyper-aware about because I want to keep the people around me safe. I take many precautions to avoid hazardous situations, which can mean anything from sedating myself, isolating myself, or voluntarily committing myself when necessary.

The terror I feel comes from something else, namely a situation where I might be psychotic and either making noise (and bothering my neighbors) or so “out of it” that a friend, family member, or neighbor calls the police to check on me or to get me help.

I can’t say I know anything about police in other parts of the US, but in Seattle the police often have little (if any) training on how to interact with the mentally ill. In the last five years this has been a common theme, and there have been many serious situations where mentally ill people have been killed by police officers who didn’t know how to handle mental health crises.

What do people having a mental health crisis need? They need someone who can communicate with them in a non-threatening way and provide a psychiatric evaluation on site for a potentially immediate hospitalization without causing the situation to escalate.

As it turns out, there is a service that exists in many, if not most states across the county where mental health professionals can be called right to your home to respond to a crisis. 

Yes, apparently there is a first-response service designed to deal with mental health emergencies! When I discovered this, I was initially both excited and concerned; excited because I feel infinitely safer with this system in place, but concerned because I had never heard about it before. Chances are, I expect you haven’t either… and what good does this service do if people don’t even know about it?

The trouble is that the contact information for this service is usually different from county to county within a state, and from what I understand each state has its own laws about exactly who can be committed (involuntarily) for hospitalization and in what situations. This makes my job of providing you with the information you need to receive these services rather difficult (and I’m sure that is partially why nobody I’ve talked to really seems to know about this). What I can say is this;

This page is the WA state DSHS page on “Designated Mental Health Professionals” (or DMHP as they’re called here) with a little information on the state program. As I said, the contacts are broken down by county but there is a full list of contact information for WA state here (as well as a link to this list on the DSHS page I linked to above). I’m going to be adding these links to the Links page as well so anyone who needs to can find them in a pinch.

As for the rest of you readers residing in the US who might find yourselves either experiencing a mental health crisis or party to one, I would highly recommend doing an internet search to find the contact information for the team in your area to have on hand in case of an emergency. You may want to search for something like;

Mental Health Crisis Response (your state or county)
Mental Health First Responders (your state or county)

When in doubt, I would say a good way to go is to search:

Mental Health Crisis Phone Number (your state, county, or city) 

Once you have a crisis phone line number for your area, you should be able to call and ask about a Mental Health Crisis Response team in your area and the best way to reach them in an emergency.

I know there have been situations for me when going to the emergency room seems important, but difficult because going out into the crowds of the city or riding the bus could put myself and others at risk for a bad situation. Likewise I can think of times when I have been extremely concerned about some of my peers with bipolar disorder who were unable to drive to the emergency room due to psychosis. How much easier would things be if I could bring that treatment right to the emergency itself?

I think we are reaching a point in America where people are becoming increasingly concerned about mental health crises, if for no other reason than the alarming increase of violent situations being associated with them. Just yesterday on The View co-hosts were urging viewers to call the police in “any situation where someone thinks they see someone acting insane” (their words, not mine). This can pose big problems for those of us with mental illness, and while police are slowly starting to get the training to help them neutralize a mental health crisis with words (instead of weapons) it still seems incredibly important to me that we are able to protect ourselves by reaching out to well-trained medical professionals in a crisis situation before (potentially uninvited) uniformed people with guns show up who might escalate things.

I have been reading about this at some length, and NAMI suggests that in the event of a crisis, after someone has called mental health first responders it can be a good idea to call your local police department, simply to alert them that you have already called responders and to avoid surprise visits by the police if they are being/have been called by neighbors about a disturbance.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of the police. I think they are doing a good thing here, I just don’t think we’ve reached a point (at least, not in Seattle) where officers are ready to take on situations with mental health crises (or, at least, those episodes that are not resulting in extreme violence -which is most of them). I actually spoke to two police men about this last week, and they were the first to admit they don’t know the first thing about mental illness or how to interact with someone with mental illness. When the topic came up, one said to me;

“I would probably just tell my buddy [experiencing mental illness] to man up.”

This was an extremely intelligent, well-seasoned policeman. The facts are that police officers operate in the cities and towns where all manner of people live, and their work often requires them to be more than a soldier or a detective. Is this their fault? No, but in order to fill that gap in service there needs to be someone with the knowledge of mental health crises who can take over in an emergency.

As it turns out, those people exist! They may not be organized on a national level (the way the police are) but I think that might be something we (as a nation) should consider. After all, what good is a service that nobody knows about? All we want is the ability to help ourselves, and knowing exactly who to call (or who our loved ones can turn to) in the event of a mental health emergency can be the difference between an effective crisis intervention and a situation that escalates into something dangerous.

Today I am urging you to take a few minutes to do a little research to prepare yourself in case of an emergency. If you are someone who experiences intense mixed episodes or mania with or without psychosis, or even depression with psychosis I would highly recommend adding the number for a mental health crisis first response team in your area to your emergency contact list, wallet, or refrigerator, and sharing that information with your family and friends for future reference. As for everyone else, it never hurts to be better prepared for a crisis situation, and anything we can do to make it easier for those around us to take care of us when we can’t take care of ourselves is a win!