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Mental Health Professionals as Appropriate First Responders

Recent events that resulted in the deaths of Adrean Stephenson and Howard Owens are tragic. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Sarasota and Manatee Counties recognizes that the lack of appropriate and funded mental health crisis services across the U.S. has resulted in law enforcement officers serving as first responders to these types of crises.

It is important to note that most people with mental illness are not violent and are more often victims than perpetrators of crimes. In a mental health crisis, people with mental illnesses frequently encounter police who are called upon to help rather than receiving medical attention. We believe that every community should have robust crisis intervention services for people experiencing a psychiatric emergency so that they receive needed help and avoid the criminal justice system.

There are state and national models for improvement for our community to investigate going forward. NAMI supports models that utilize behavioral health professionals in response to crisis calls involving mental health. One successful example of this is CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) in Eugene, Oregon. This program has been active for more than 30 years and provides immediate stabilization in case of urgent medical need or psychological crisis, assessment, information, and referral to the next step in treatment. Anyone reporting a crime in progress, violence, or a life-threatening emergency may receive a response from the police or emergency medical services instead of, or in addition to, CAHOOTS.

Nationally and here in Sarasota and Manatee Counties, NAMI supports police de-escalation policies like Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training for law enforcement officers – an important tool in the toolbox. This training is given by a community partnership of law enforcement, mental health and addiction professionals, individuals who live with mental illness and/or addiction disorders, their families, and other advocates. The CIT Model is evidenced-based and has proven to reduce both stigma and the need for further involvement with the criminal justice system.

Mental health professionals are more aware of local resources and services and can often link individuals to treatment better than a standard law enforcement response to a crisis. These approaches, which take mental health into account by adding mental health professionals to the mix, should have a dramatic effect on the way police respond to these challenges.

We understand that there are costs associated with any innovation. Sarasota County has taken proactive steps in this directionwith discussions on a Mental Health Special Dependent District for the citizens of Sarasota County. We hope that even in these turbulent times that conversation will continue.

NAMI extends its sympathies to Mr. Owens and Ms. Stephenson’s family. We also appreciate the support of our local law enforcement to improve the delivery of mental health services in our community.


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