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Mental Health issues; Who do we call?

Suicide, along with violence between law enforcement and residents of the United States, is rapidly growing while tolerance is disappearing. Lives are being lost, destroyed and turned upside down while mentally ill people are falling into the cracks of our legal system.

Do the officers in our community have mandatory training to recognize the difference between a competent violent aggressor and a mentally ill person having an episode? Another lingering question, why in some cases is deadly force used before exhausting all other options? What protocols are emergency responders required to follow when engaging an individual in crisis? Does our community have a crisis intervention team (CIT) that works closely with our law enforcement individuals? Do we even have a CIT in our community available to us?

These are all questions that the answer to could save a life. All over the country we have been hearing about police officers shooting and killing a person in crisis.

For instance, in August 2014, San Jose California police shot and killed a 19 year old mentally ill woman holding and waving around a cordless drill. They opened fire and she died on the scene. This begs to question, if a CIT unit was dispatched first, could this woman have been calmed down and taken in to get the proper mental health treatment she needed? Another incident happened in late August 2014 in San Mateo County California. Yanira Serrano-Garcia was an 18 year old woman suffering a mental crisis, lost her life. She was shot and killed by a police officer. Yanira was reported to not have been taking her medications by her family and was running around with a knife. She ran after one of the officers on the call at which time the other officer shot and killed her to stop her. In both these cases, it's possible that a taser could have been used to diffuse the situation in the absence of a properly trained mental health representative or in the case where mental health advocates cannot diffuse the situation themselves. 

On the other side of the country, we have the exploded situation in Ferguson MO. Could mental health training have helped the officer diffuse Michael Brown instead of further enraging him? What about a taser? Did the officer in Ferguson have to use deadly force, would tasing Brown have sufficiently subdued him? June 11th Austin Texas 2002, Sophia King lost her life while experiencing a mental crisis. Again, the question arises, should there be a crisis intervention team available to assist officers on calls at all times?  Not only to assist the officers, but to assist the person having a mental crisis. In the case of Keith Vidal of North Carolina in Jan. 2014, the situation was being taken care of until a third officer arrived and shot and killed him.  In all five cases here, if the situation had been confronted differently from the start, from the view of a mental health professional, would they have ended differently? The fact remains that these five lives, along with many more I have not mentioned, are lost and can never be lived again due to a lack of awareness.  

In our community, we are no stranger to the irreversible damage a person in mental crisis can do. Revisiting the horrific day of July 7, 2011 Grand Rapids, Michigan mass murder  Roderick Dantzler took eight lives, including his own. Thousands were affected by it. Was there any form of crisis intervention available to the officers or the suspect on that day? In Newaygo Co. Michigan in May 2014, Tricia Hill fatally stabbed her live in boyfriend, piercing his heart. In this case, the victim and the suspect were said to have been drinking alcohol, using marijuana, and arguing off and on all day. The victim’s sister had also stated that her brother and Hill had a tenuous relationship.  Wrong-way crashes have been on the rise as well. Innocent people are being mowed down by another person having a mental break. Every situation described here has some level of mental health issue attached to it.

There are a lot of questions that need to be answered regarding mental health and how to respond to someone in crisis. “The current problems with the mental health care system did not happen overnight,” states Texas National Alliance for the Mentally Ill's Joe Lovelace in the Austin Chronicle.  We cannot fix or raise awareness regarding mental health overnight either. This will take time and effort from many in our communities.

Mental illness is a growing concern. It is everywhere, and it is not going away. More people are being diagnosed with some level of mental illness. However, not everyone that needs it is getting proper treatment, and not everyone is aware that this is a problem. When left untreated, a person with mental illness can become very difficult to communicate with. For a man or woman in law enforcement, this can be very frustrating, especially if they have no prior sensitivity or awareness training. In all of the above mentioned cases, mental illness attributed to the deaths and destruction of many lives. Lack of awareness on how to approach and engage a person with a mental health issue also played a role. As citizens and fellow humans, we need to come together and raise awareness for mental health, for the survival of our loved ones. Mental health issues touch each and every one of us, either directly or indirectly. When you go to the store, do you realize how many people around you are suffering from mental health issues? Would you exhibit a little more patience in the checkout line if you were able to recognize that the person in front of you may not look like they are struggling, but they are? Would you still hold a grudge against your neighbor irritated by your noise if you knew he or she was suffering from a mental health issue that causes sensory sensitivity? Mental health issues are not easily seen, but can be seen easier if we ask the right questions instead of assume that because we cannot see the problem it is not there.

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