Police unveil new mental health crisis program

February 9, 2016  

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by Penny Levers

AUSTIN –  At the January 21 Region 4 Quarterly Commander’s Forum, CIT Officer Randy Hunt unveiled a new Austin Police Department (APD) outreach program.

Titled “Mental Health Crisis Planning: learning to recognize, prevent and prepare” the program is designed to help get the word out to the community on the best ways to deal with mental health crises that might require police intervention.  The program is a collaborative effort with NAMIAustin and is based on a similar program used in Dallas.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), about “one in 25 adults will experience a serious mental illness in any given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” In Austin, when mental health crises occur, the Austin Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) is often called to the scene to de-escalate the situation and to transport people to places where they can get treatment.

CIT officers have a minimum of 80 hours of training in dealing with mental health situations. While all Texas police officers are required by the state to have at least 16 hours of mental health training, APD has set their minimum at 40 hours training for each officer. There are about 160 active CIT officers in APD, and over 400 who have the full 80 hours of training, according to CIT Sergeant Michael King. But getting the CIT team involved in responding to a mental health crisis starts with a 911 call that will alert the dispatcher that a specialized response is called for. For families and others who are experiencing a first crisis with a loved one, the situation can feel chaotic and overwhelming and they may not understand the importance of stressing that mental health is the issue.

Two CIT officers and Karen Ranus, Executive Director of the Austin chapter of NAMI have a 45-minute presentation that can educate the community on best ways to respond in a mental health crisis. The presentation is not just for family members, but can be useful in situations involving neighbors, friends or co-workers also. The presentation had its initial rollout to a NAMI group in October and got “a great response” according to Ranus. Now they are getting the word out that they are available to give the presentation to organizations and community and faith-based groups.

Information relayed during the presentation includes: what is a crisis; what triggers it; how can you prevent a crisis; and, what to expect when you make that 911 call.  Attendees will get a handout to help with crisis planning that goes over triggers and warning signs and gives tips on coming up with a crisis plan including having a Psychiatric Advance Directive (PAD). A PAD is a legal document giving “specific instructions or preferences regarding future mental health treatment, in preparation for the possibility that the person may lose capacity to give or withhold informed consent to treatment during acute episodes of psychiatric illness.”

In addition, the presenters will be handing out large refrigerator magnets that have a 911 checklist on it that lists the vital information that needs to be imparted when one has to make the 911 call. At the bottom of the checklist is the following advice: “Keep in Mind: When you call 911, you are asking a law enforcement professional to come to your home to resolve a crisis. They will have NO information about the situation/individual unless you inform them. The goal of the Austin Police Department is always the peaceful resolution of crisis situations.”

“We are riding a wave of change about mental health,” said Ranus. “People are now more comfortable talking about it and they are hungry for this information. We need to get people and families out of isolation where they are far more vulnerable.”

Groups that are interested in hosting this presentation can call the CIT Unit main phone number at 512-854-3450.

For families and partners of loved ones who are living with mental illness, NAMIAustin offers many resources including support groups and their free 12-week Family-to-Family course taught by trained teachers who are themselves family members of people with mental illness. A 12-week course meeting at Austin Oaks Hospital at 1407 West Stassney starts next Monday, February 8. More information can be found at www.namiaustin.org.


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