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!

25 responses to “Mental Health First Responders; More Qualified for a Crisis than Police

  1. Really good and deeply informative post!

    In my country, the policy in case of the crisis is: calling the EMT team, and if the person in crisis is very violent and unable to control, then the police is called.

    I find it ok, as I had one of those experiences, when I was completely unaware what I was doing, so because of violence, the police came and they have…well, cuffed me.

    The whole EMT team plus my family members couldn’t settle me down. Instead, I turned into violent “maniac”.

    I’m now grateful to all those people who had helped me.

    And having a phone numbers near, the Crisis center, the EMT, whoever is responsible for the first contact, that numbers should always be on the visible spot. Just in case.

    Thank you once again! 🙂

    • That seems like a logical system, unfortunately many EMT’s in the USA don’t have any training on mental health (I learned this first hand when I called them after having a huge panic attack and they taunted me about it while I rode in the ambulance to the hospital. Personally, I would definitely prefer an alternative!

      Glad you’ve had a good experience. Thanks for your comment!

      • Thanks for the reply!
        Our Emergency service has a M.D. and an EMT in the ambulance car.
        Hence, it makes maybe a little difference, because M.D. is trained for every kind of a crisis situation.

        Sending you good vibes! Hang on and stay strong! 🙂

  2. Pingback: Mental Health First Responders; More Qualified for a Crisis than Police | Mental Thoughts with Mike

  3. Reblogged this on Mental Thoughts with Mike and commented:
    Very important reading!!!

  4. Thank you for this information. I did not know about this.

    • I’m glad you found this helpful, thanks for sharing it -I think this is important information and we need to get the word out! Thanks again!

  5. Fantastic information!!! Thanks!

  6. Good information and really good points. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Informative and timely article. We must acknowledge and fully utilize mental health response teams nationwide. Since when in crisis few people have the presence of mind to contact the crisis team directly, often they first contact 911. 911 operators must be trained to assess whether a mental health crisis team needs to be dispatched.

    • I do agree, and I think part of the problem is that (especially in Seattle in past few years) there have been calls put in that suggest both a mental health crisis and a situation that could escalate into violence. In these situations, the police have always been the default, and that has been a big part of why so many folks in mental health crisis here have been killed in Seattle (when friends and family have said these people were genuinely loving, friendly people outside of whatever episode they were having). I can understand why this has been the practice, but I think it would be entirely more beneficial for a mental health crisis team to arrive first, with police (if really necessary) hanging back.

      I guess at any rate… something isn’t working. Perhaps more training for call center operators is in the cards for improvement. Thanks!

      • More coordination of effort is needed, but there will probably always be a tension between the two camps.

        On an interesting side note, when I was a psychotherapist to adolescents in residential treatment back in the early 90’s, I had an interesting interaction with the Berkeley police who at the time seemed to think that they were therapists. I was on-call one night and called the police in response to one of my girls (forgive me if you find the term girl offensive, but I loved them as if they were my kids) punching another one of my girls. The girl who did the punching regularly intimidated other residents and had come to us from Juvenile Hall. After the police officer spoke with her, he told me that she just needed to talk. I informed the officer that as her therapist I saw her individually three times a week, that she attended multiple group therapy sessions and therapeutic community meetings, and that all of our staff was available to our residents. I then informed the officer that what she needed were consequences (certainly not to be shot). She needed to go back to Juvenile Hall for the weekend. Berkeley police are unique, though.

  8. This is a very helpful and thoughtful article. Unfortunately, my 60 year old unarmed mentally ill neighbor was shot to death a police SWAT team on Thanksgiving weekend in 2010. Two officers are, after 4 long years of mishandled evidence, local media focus on specific witness names and testimony prior to trial, a DA lawsuit against the widow for over $250K in city legal fees and general police malfeasance and intimidation, are going to trial by jury in a federal court. It was a complete shitshow. And Seattle, despite its history of police overreach, has a civilian oversight panel, unlike many cities in the country.

    • I’m sorry to hear about your neighbor, but I know these sorts of situations have become more and more common over the last few years. When I was younger I was incredibly naive in my belief that most people would want to help others in any given situation… then I moved to Seattle. I guess that pegs me as a small town girl, huh? It is important we find ways to protect ourselves, especially when we are the most vulnerable. Thanks for the comment!

  9. I would like to nominate you for a Liebster award the rules are at The 11 Questions I would like to ask you are:
    1)Would you prefer to be a cat or a dog? Why?
    2)What would your last meal be?
    3)What is your favorite outdoor activity?
    4)Why do you blog?
    5)If you could retire anywhere, where would it be?
    6)Who is your hero? Why?
    7)What cartoon character are you?
    8)If you could cure one illness in the world what would it be?
    9)What is 1 thing you love about yourself?
    10) Disney or DreamWorks?
    11) How would you make your city a better place?

  10. Reblogged this on Not So Crazy Talk and commented:
    In my personal experience, I can say with confidence that the police don’t know shit about mental illness in the United States. This is something worth doing one’s homework on if you’re in the States

  11. I had a friend that called the police on me because I was in crisis. All I needed at the time was someone to talk to. Nope. Instead I got put in handcuffs and was paraded around the ER in said handcuffs until they told me “You can admit yourself voluntarily or we’ll take you somewhere that will take you whether you like it or not.” Yeah said friend is no longer a friend.

    But the fact of the matter is that in addition to the police not knowing what to do, people don’t know who to call when their friend or family member is in crisis.

    • That sound rough, and I think you’re absolutely right. That is one of the reasons I think having a mental health crisis number (or an option when dialing the standard “911” for people to request mental health crisis intervention ONLY) is a big deal, but it is equally important for folks who might need this service to pass on this information to their friends and family. In a perfect world it would be great for this sort of thing to become common knowledge, and though I think we are heading in that direction I expect it will take some time. Thanks!

  12. I’d like to know if there is such a thing in Canada, but I can’t seem to find an answer from google.
    I’ll try again later, but first I thought I might ask if there’s perhaps another way to phrase this that might lead to an easier discovery of the service, like a keyword I haven’t thought of or something…

    Anyways, I’m glad this post is around, and I rather think this is something that both the states and Canada should make part of the regular 911 options, because honestly, we need people who are trained with mental health to be dealing with mental health issues.

    • I did a search just now for “mental health crisis intervention canada” and got a few hits for Ontario, Toronto, and a few others. I suspect (like our system) yours might be specific to certain localities (or even by territory, not sure) so combining that phrase with your city or territory might give some results.

      As I mentioned in the post, it might be beneficial to ask a local crisis call center, they are usually linked to all local services and should be able to give you the contact information you need.

      I recently lost a friend in Canada to suicide so I definitely agree that folks in Canada need more resources and to be linked to better service, particularly in crisis. Thanks for stopping by!

  13. Very informative! After a quick google I found “Crisis Intervention Team” for Viriginia Beach. In the event of a crisis, a call to 911 is still encouraged… law enforcement supposedly have received training as part of this team. This is definitely worth a closer look. Thanks!!!

  14. i have found that many so called professionals in the mental health field once the consul room door is closed are completely incompetent to the point of violating the clients Human Rights. often they are told to pray and or go to the counselors church. there when they can’t handle the pressure are told that if the prayers are not working to pray harder that its their fault that prayer isn’t working.
    so i would say that one of the major failings of this report is its lack of admittance that worker incompetence is a MAJOR problem in the mental health field.
    YES mary-lou your worker might just simply be Incompetent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s