Today’s front page story in the Sun-Sentinel by reporter Michael Mayo sheds light on the heroes in our community and efforts to help a grossly underfunded, and neglected segment. Please read this and share.
The question was simple: What are some names we call people with mental illness?
The cops in the classroom laughed nervously before answering: nut job, bananas, schizo, psycho, cuckoo, wacko, whackadoodle, Signal 20, crazy, loco, insane, batty, fruitcake.
“And what are some names we use for people who have cancer?” the instructor asked.
“That would be mean,” said one woman, a Broward Sheriff’s deputy.
So began a 40-hour training session for the latest crop of South Florida police officers who now wear a pin with the letters “C.I.T.” on their uniforms. CIT stands for Crisis Intervention Team, and the intense, weeklong course serves as a sort of boot camp for cops when it comes to handling — and defusing — situations where mental health comes into play.
Police officers aren’t doctors or therapists, but they are often thrust into being first-responders for those in crisis with mental illness.
And in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, like many places around the country, the biggest mental-health provider isn’t a hospital or clinic. It’s the local jails.
The 22 officers came to a classroom at Broward’s police academy in Davie earlier this year to get healthy doses of education and sensitivity. I came because mental health is a huge issue that’s too easily ignored and stigmatized, even though it cuts across every layer of society. One in four Americans will be diagnosed with a mental disorder at some point in their lives — depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, dementia, schizophrenia.
If you’re having a heart attack, you can call 911 for an ambulance, and paramedics will rush you to the hospital for medical treatment.
But if you have a disease of the mind and exhibit bizarre or dangerous behavior at home or in public, it’s usually the police who must sort out what to do. Depending on the circumstances, you might get help or you might end up behind bars — or worse.
A 911 call could bring a compassionate officer who has been through CIT training and knows about de-escalation techniques, or a hard-edged officer who might arrest — or shoot — a subject who doesn’t quickly obey commands.
“We get 600-something hours of training in the police academy, but it doesn’t cover 80 percent of your job — dealing with people,” Sgt. Jaime Costas of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department told the group.
I have plenty of personal experience with mental illness: My late brother, David, had schizophrenia and spent most of his adult life in a New York psychiatric hospital. But I wanted to take a closer look at the current situation here in South Florida, where there’s a huge dichotomy.
On the one hand, Florida’s per-capita funding for mental health and substance abuse programs consistently ranks near the bottom for all states. State hospitals that provide long-term care for the worst cases are practically extinct.
Yet South Florida has been home to trend-setting innovation and exceptionally caring advocates. Broward was among the first places nationally to institute mental-health courts to divert misdemeanor and nonviolent offenders from the criminal justice system.
Judges like Ginger Lerner-Wren and Mark Speiser in Broward and Steve Leifman in Miami-Dade, and Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, keep pushing for treatment programs instead of incarceration. Police veterans like Costas and BSO Capt. Scott Russell, a big man with a bigger heart, have been instrumental in developing homeless outreach programs and expanding CIT training.
Russell, an ordained minister and former Fort Lauderdale police offficer, was lured out of retirement last year by Broward Sheriff Scott Israel. Russell hopes to increase CIT classes to 10 times a year, up from quarterly the past few years.
“The success of an agency is not measured by the number of people arrested, but the number of problems solved,” Russell said. “We’re trying to make arrest the last choice.”
The CIT program started in Memphis in the 1980s after police shot and killed a mentally ill suspect. The first CIT training in Broward was offered in 2002. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office started its CIT program in 2007. More than 1,000 deputies and officers from various agencies have gone through the local courses, but that’s only a small fraction of local police forces.
The training week included primers from experts on mental illness, substance abuse, Florida’s laws on involuntary commitment and treatment (the Baker Act and the Marchman Act), psychotropic medications and their side effects. There were seminars on the homeless, the elderly, veterans and those with developmental disabilities. There were site visits to hospitals and crisis units, rehab and counseling centers, and a homeless shelter.
A clinician from Henderson Behavioral Health, Daniel Gelpi, led role-playing workshops where officers were confronted with different scenarios, from the frantic (a shouting homeless man who wanted to kill all the squirrels in a park) to the subdued (a man who covered his home’s windows with tin foil and said he was being filmed).
Most powerful were talks from those directly impacted by mental illness. A mother whose son killed himself led a session on suicide awareness and prevention. A television news producer with depression spoke of how he landed in jail during a divorce and was denied his usual medicine. A lawyer whose son is bipolar with intermittent explosive disorder spoke of how her son is “36 going on 12″ and has been involuntarily committed under the Baker Act more than twenty times.
It’s a tough balancing act for families, worrying about their own safety and that of the community at large while trying to do what’s best for the afflicted.
Say “mental illness” and most people conjure violent, worst-case scenarios: mass shootings like Newtown or Tucson, subway shovings in New York, or a horrific South Florida case like Paul Merhige killing four relatives at a Thanksgiving dinner in Jupiter 2009.
But the reality is most people with mental illness (like my late brother) are not violent. Most people with mental illness are more likely to hurt themselves than others, either by suicide, reckless behavior or long-term neglect. My brother David was a heavy smoker — like many with schizophrenia, he found cigarettes calming. He died of esophageal cancer at age 50 in 2009.
When David was younger and first diagnosed with mental illness at 19, he’d have psychotic episodes and outbursts. Once he tried sawing the pipes of our family’s home, convinced we were being gassed by the CIA and KGB. Once he drove his car into a tree. Luckily, every time police were called, he immediately became docile and compliant.
As I told the class, the worst feeling for family members is picking up the phone to dial 911 and not knowing whether you might be initiating a death warrant for a loved one.
Luke Penny told how his adopted son was born with drugs in his system and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at age 4, unusually early. His son, who just turned 18, has spent 730 nights in psychiatric hospitals, including the past six months in Bradenton. Penny said his son physically attacked him last August, and had to be subdued with a Taser by BSO deputies who responded.
One of those deputies was in the classroom for CIT training when Penny spoke.
“I have two big fears,” Penny told the class. “One is that my son will kill me. The other is that you’ll encounter him and have to use excessive force. … I beg you, if you do ever encounter my son, to open your heart and treat him with compassion.”
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