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The Mental Health Reforms Police Departments Should Adopt

A Connecticut initiative represents a leap forward, but more is needed.

Key points

  • Police departments need to establish two-way conversations with the communities they serve to establish trust.
  • Departments can embrace policies to reduce the stigma of mental illness, which influences the willingness of families to seek help.
  • Police can help community organizations take a proactive, preventive approach to mental health issues, and build a stronger safety net.
Michael Descharles/Unsplash
Source: Michael Descharles/Unsplash

Last week, the police department in Stamford, Connecticut announced it had adopted several initiatives to better ensure the safety of those with mental health conditions during encounters with law enforcement.

These initiatives include mental health collaboration; crisis intervention response training; mental health crisis adaptive patrol response; and the embedding of social workers in the police force for response, coordination of care, and follow-ups.

Such reform represents an important leap forward in reimaging how law enforcement interacts with those who have mental health issues. However, the complexity of mental illness requires a much more multifaceted solution.

For one, police officers need to establish two-way conversations with the communities they serve. Even departments like Stamford’s that have already trained dispatchers to ask more mental health-specific questions can only improve their safety record and response times if residents know what information would be most helpful. To illustrate, as a mental health attorney, I frequently help family members of those with mental illness create scripts to follow should they ever need to call 9-1-1.

Of course, this requires trust between residents and police – a challenge given the rift that has long affected many underserved communities. Law enforcement must do the difficult work of repairing this trust if they expect those who need help to see them as a resource, focusing on reestablishing ties with community leaders at places such as health and mental health services providers, houses of worship, and youth services organizations.

In addition, police departments can be part of the effort to reduce the stigma of mental illness. For example, they can create and enforce policies surrounding inappropriate language concerning those with mental health conditions. They can also model for their communities a real understanding that those with mental health issues are statistically no more dangerous than anyone else. The more they humanize mental health conditions, the more compassion they’ll evoke within their department and communities.

What’s more, police departments can ally with mental health organizations and individual practitioners to encourage schools, workplaces, and other organizations to take a more proactive, preventive approach to mental health issues. They can partner with these organizations, ensuring that internal crisis response teams have direct contacts with police leaders who understand mental health issues and empathize with those affected by them.

Perhaps most critically, they can join efforts to strengthen the country’s mental health system, creating a stronger safety net for individuals and families, including more supportive housing and outpatient care.

In reporting the news of the police reform measures, the Stamford Advocate quotes a social worker embedding in the department, who said, “The biggest issue that I kept on hearing…if the person says they want to hurt themselves, they will take them to the hospital. Then a half-hour, 45 minutes, a little while later, the person can check themselves out.”

This issue is all too real and affects every family that comes to me for help. It also affects police departments, which often get calls about the same individuals again and again.

Providing significant, lasting help for individuals and families struggling with mental health issues requires us as a society to create alternatives beyond a world in which highly vulnerable men, women, and children spend their lives cycling in and out of hospitals and jails. We must work together, alongside local police departments, to bring such alternatives into focus.