One in every four Americans experiences mental illness, and a lack of police understanding can lead to tragedy. What if more of us were trained to deal with depression and anxiety? New York City plans to do it
In February 2010, off-duty police officer Joseph C Coffey was driving by a pond when he noticed a car partially submerged. 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 mental health first aid 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 said. “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.”
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 number one 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 number one cause of suicide – and at more than 40,000 US suicides a year, “that’s 40,000 people who die from mental illness”.
More people are suffering and miss more time from work from depression compared to any other medical problem
When that behavior is misunderstood, police interactions can lead to tragedy. Recent years have seen increased media attention of the problem. In 2014, Ezell Ford, who had been diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, was shot and killed by an officer in Los Angeles. That same year in Albuquerque, New Mexico, James Boyd – a homeless man with mental health issues – was shot and killed by police. Such incidents underscore the need for better law enforcement training in recognising and dealing with mental illness. “If an officer can recognise what they’re seeing may be a manifestation of mental illness, they can take a more appropriate action – which may not be arrest,” Coffey says.
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New York City is partnering with the National Council for Behavioral Health to make such trainings accessible to entire communities. ThriveNYC, a public initiative launched in November 2015 and led by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, will provide $850m (£680m) in funding for mental health programmes over four years. A key investment will be providing mental health first aid training to 250,000 people, beginning with first responders such as police officers and firefighters. Because of the pervasiveness of mental illness (insured New Yorkers spend $17bn [£13.6bn] a year on treating anxiety, depression, and addiction), proponents of the plan believe first aid for mental illness should be taken as seriously as for physical illnesses and injuries.
The goal is to make mental health first aid as ubiquitous as regular first aid, such as CPR. Experienced bystanders can help prevent deaths, assess harmful situations, and seek appropriate medical treatment. The American Heart Association and The Red Cross train more than 20 million Americans each year in CPR.
The initiative is being driven largely by the leadership of Chirlane McCray, who is married to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. McCray was inspired by her own experiences with mental illness, both within her family and with a high school friend who took her own life. McCray has said that her parents suffered from depression that affected the whole family, but it was only “talked about in whispers and shadows”. A few years ago, her 18-year-old daughter Chiara told her parents she had been diagnosed with anxiety, addiction and depression. McCray remembers not knowing where to turn for support. “It was hard to figure out who I could trust and know what path to…
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