(WSPA) – When mental illness becomes a crisis, the first response is usually not a doctor or a therapist. It’s usually a cop.
Every day, police in South Carolina respond to patients in desperate and sometimes dangerous situations. So, that’s where Mental Health Monday begins on 7News. How do the men and women sworn to uphold the law, protect our mental health?
It starts at the Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia.
A lot of the training there is like boot camp. Every sworn officer in the state measures fitness and force.
None graduate to work the streets without learning compassion.
We watched one scenario that had teams of officer cadets responding to a “welfare check.” That is, a man missed work and his employer was concerned so he asked police to check it out.
The officers find an open door and step inside to find a man in need of help.
“Police department, come outside!” the cadets start with simple commands from outside the home, “police department come outside!”
When the house is quiet, they step inside and find Police Science instructor Ren Henderson with what looks like a gun to his own head.
“Guys, just go, just go, just go guys,” he says.
“You don’t need to be here and close the door and I’ll take care of business,” he continues.
The students will have to react to the firearm, protect themselves, and engage in something they talk about a lot on the CJA campus: “de-escalation.”
“We’re going to try every technique that we can to make the person feel comfortable, to eventually put the gun down and get them some real help,” Henderson said.
South Carolina police find patients in mental health crises so often, training like this is now a permanent part of the cadet curriculum.
In fact, after graduation they’ll still get updated mental health training every three years.
“Most of the time, it’s just a person who is having a bad day with their illness,” said Lewis Swindler, Director at the Criminal Justice Academy. “So, therefore, they need somebody to be able to hear them talk to them and a lot of what helps of is talking listening saying the right thing.”
So, the job in a crisis is to protect a life, buy time, and try to cool an potentially explosive situation.
They’re taught to offer a first name, what options they can, and in a scenario like this one, learn the source of the problem.
In this drill they learn the suicidal man fears losing custody of his children.
The cadets explain his options in family court as an alternative to drastic action.
Police are not doctors, and have few options for where to proceed once the situation “de-escalates.”
Many mentally ill patients end up behind bars instead of a hospital.
“All over this country there are people being housed in a jail,” said Swindler. “Certainly, they committed something but that is not where they need to be. They need help. Where is that help?”
Unfortunately, many people don’t seek help, or even know they need it, until someone calls 911.
When that happens, police are duty-bound to respond.