Preventing unnecessary arrests and prison time for people with mental health disorders is the goal of the Criminal Justice Diversion Project, a National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) initiative, said June Binney, J.D., director.
Personnel from the Fitchburg and Cambridge police departments presented a workshop on “Best Practices in Law Enforcement/Mental Health Partnerships,” at NAMI’s Massachusetts state convention in Leominster on Oct. 31.
The Department of Mental Health awards approximately $1.5 million in annual grants to cities and towns to implement specialized training so that officers are better able to respond to incidents involving people with mental illnesses.
NAMI created a two and a half day mental health curriculum for all new police recruits as well as a three-hour mandatory in-service training session for current officers.
Binney said that by Dec. 31, 2015, all 18,000 municipal police officers should have received training in pre-arrest diversion techniques. Currently, 60 out of 351 communities are active in the project.
“It boils down to relationships and building partnerships at every level,” Binney said.
She noted that studies estimated that 10 percent of all 911 calls involve a person having a “psychiatric crisis.”
However, Binney added that a poll of 250 police chiefs had that figure closer to between 35 and 50 percent.
In Fitchburg, 19 out of 75 officers have had the training, according to Lt. Harry Hess, one of the presenters. He noted that the program is successful because of the sharing of resources between police, local mental health service providers, schools and emergency responders.
Outreach is also essential and well-received. For example, Fitchburg police and the department’s domestic violence advocate make weekly “cold call,” follow up visits to victims at homes where violence has occurred that week.
Hess said that on-going outreach is provided to opiate addicted individuals, noting that users frequently have other addictions as well as mental health disorders.
Fitchburg also has three trained officers working in the schools where mental health issues are “rampant,” Hess said.
In Cambridge, Lt. Leonard DiPietro described how the department transformed from having a “lock them up or let them go,” philosophy to a highly trained, comprehensive “community services unit” model.
Police work closely with the Department of Human Services, schools and Cambridge Health Alliance and take a “proactive” rather than “reactive,” approach to policing, he said. A dedicated CHA psychologist works with the police – overseeing risk and needs assessments – on a regular basis.
Catherine Pemberton, LICSW and Jacquelyn Rose, MPH are also on the police department staff and participated as presenters on the Cambridge panel.
Cambridge’s dedicated Community Services Unit includes six youth resource officers, four youth outreach officers, two juvenile detectives and 12 officers.
For older populations, staff includes two mental health outreach officers, two homeless outreach officers, a senior outreach officer (to deal with elders who can’t care for selves, have hoarding, depression and other issues) and two officers that reach out to the business community.
Sgt. Frederick Cabral explained that the city uses a case management process that is not the norm elsewhere but has seen positive results.
They exchange information with mental health providers, for example, informing clinicians when one of their patients has an incident involving police. Often, mental health personnel are called to a scene so the individual can get assistance and avoid arrest.
He noted that every officer has undergone mental health first aid training as well as training in crisis intervention, case management, mediation, crisis negotiation, aggressive behavior management, “policing the teen brain” and more.
Dressed down, designated staff and community partners walk the streets regularly and approach homeless people, directing them to services and medical help.
“People with mental illness deserve quality care and quality interactions,” Sgt. Cabral said.
Another presentation, led by Steve Rosenfeld, NAMI Mass board president, focused on the recently launched “CEOs Against Stigma” campaign.
In 18 months, NAMI would like to have 250 CEOs with a workforce of 500,000 employees involved in its initiative. To date, 40 business leaders have signed on, representing 95,000 workers, Rosenfeld said.
Most of the participants run health-related or insurance firms in the Boston area, a situation NAMI hopes to expand upon.
The project, funded by an Attorney General’s grant, asks CEOs to sign a pledge promising to educate themselves and other executives about best practices in the workplace, commit to having a company that emphasizes the well being of all employees and examine its offered health and welfare benefits.
The CEOs would also agree to host NAMI “In our Own Voice” presentations at their companies, act as ambassadors recruiting other participants to the program and send a memo around stressing the importance of eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
Ed Manzi Jr., head of Fidelity Bank in Fitchburg, said it is a no-brainer to participate. “Mental illness is a problem that needs corporate leadership engaged,” Manzi said.
NAMI created a booklet entitled, “Bad for Business: The Business Case for Overcoming Mental Health in the Workplace.” It includes statistics about absenteeism and “presenteeism,” (coming to work but lacking in productivity because of mental illness).
The report noted that depression, most notably, has a staggering impact on productivity in America, greater than physical disorders.
Kristin Stiles-Hall, one of NAMI’s “In Our Own Voices,” presenters, talked about her difficulties in the working world having to function with an “invisible disability” and having to lie and conceal her bipolar disorder condition from bosses and co-workers.
In all, 10 workshops were offered on topics including “Mission Direct Vet and Veterans Treatment Courts,” “Diversity and Inclusion Training,” and “Suicide Prevention.”
The keynote speaker was Edward Scolnick, M.D., chief scientist of the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at MIT. His address concerned research on genetic/biological markers to predict people at risk for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“Science’s ability to unravel the underlying causes of severe mental illness is upon us,” Scolnick said. “There is a way forward that can lead to significant improvements in diagnosis and therapy.”
By Susan Gonsalves