When my daughter was first diagnosed with a mood disorder 12 years ago, I had no idea of the experiences that lay ahead. Even when people started mentioning things like medications, hospitalizations, special education, police involvement . . . my naïve and determined mind was certain that these things would never apply to us. Not my little girl! Yet one by one, I was proved wrong as each item became a reality.
My views on police involvement in particular have changed over the years. I credit a lot of this to a chance meeting with a mom, Bella* (not her real name), who just happens to be a Chicago police officer. We met through a mutual friend because we all shared a strong common bond – a child with mental illness. Pretty soon we were collaborating to help other parents who struggled and Bella gave a strong and necessary voice to the world of juvenile justice.
My views on law enforcement and mental health were shaped primarily by what I read in the news and our own, increasingly frequent, personal experiences. In the media it seemed that rarely a month went by without some tragedy involving an encounter between police and a person with a mental illness. On a personal level, disappointment and frustration became the norm. I learned that if your child dials 911 in a manic state, then hangs up, the police are going to call back and then they are going to show up whether you want them to or not. I learned that everyone may be scrutinized, my child, their siblings, my role as a parent. I learned that if your child has a seizure (we learned later it was triggered by a reaction to a new medication), the police will arrive before the ambulance and their first priority will be to search for illegal drugs even if you swear that your child has never touched drugs or alcohol. I learned that our police didn’t always know the latest mental health laws affecting children and thus their involvement once led to my child’s hospitalization in an archaic facility NOT of my choice. I learned that I knew even less about the laws (mental health or otherwise). And I learned that even the most compassionate officers rarely, if ever, truly understood the private hell we were living.
Some officers tried tough guy scare tactics to coerce my daughter into going to school. They sternly and loudly stood over her as she hid in a closet, telling her she had to stop her violent outbursts. Others questioned my parenting – how could I allow my daughter to mouth off to me? No WONDER I was having problems with her. I bit my tongue and refrained from inviting the officer to spend a few days living in our home, caring for my child. The approach was consistently powerful, swift, intimidating. The tone was firm, loud and resolute. No hint of wavering or compromise, the police were clearly in charge. Yet in reality, they weren’t. Nothing changed after they left. Sometimes, things got worse.
A few years ago, Bella invited me and my daughters to participate in a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training program in Chicago. CIT is a program that was first developed in Memphis, TN to provide police officers with the necessary skills and tools to assist those in a mental health crisis. Rather than taking the usual approach of quickly taking control, CIT officers focus on de-escalating a crisis using specific strategies and verbal skills along with broad knowledge of different types of mental illness and suicide prevention.
As a strong mental health advocate, Officer Bella has been instrumental in the development and implementation of a Juvenile Crisis Intervention Training program. Officers voluntarily apply to participate in the 40 hour, week long training program during which one afternoon is dedicated to a family panel of parents and youth. I, of course, jumped at the chance, thrilled that police officers genuinely wanted to improve their skills in working with youth affected by mental illness. While my daughters were a bit apprehensive at first, they agreed to share their stories, in the hopes that it might make a difference for a child or family like ours. None of us, however, had any idea of just how much we ourselves would benefit from the experience.
- When your job puts you in potential or real harm’s way many times a day, every day, taking control of a situation swiftly and decisively is a matter of basic survival and at the core of basic training. I came away with a very different perspective of those ‘harsh’ police officers who came into my home.
- These police officers care. They genuinely and truly care about the people they encounter. They care about the kids who are so often misunderstood, perceived as dangerous when in reality they are overwhelmed, frightened, confused.
- The kids on the panel were viewed as the true heroes. Sitting at the front of the room facing upwards of 50 armed police officers is a bit, no make that a LOT, intimidating. Yet the officers were so thankful and appreciative of the candor and honesty shared by the youth on the panel, many came up afterwards to shake our hands.
- The questions asked were thoughtful and sincere. The officers really wanted to understand the thought process, to learn about how and why certain behaviors came out, and most importantly, what was helpful. They wanted to adjust their approach, their body language, their words, to reduce the perceived threat, to build trust and to extend a helping hand.
- I learned things about my own children that they had never shared before. For any number of reasons, sharing with this unlikely audience gave my girls courage, insight, confidence or who knows what. But they dug down deep and shared with amazing clarity just what drove their actions, what was helpful and what was not.
I feel very fortunate to have crossed paths with Officer Bella and to have shared in such an incredible opportunity. I am grateful that a little known program, born in Memphis, TN has become a national movement.
To learn more about the CIT program, visit the University of Memphis CIT Center website at https://www.cit.memphis.edu/information_files/CoreElements.pdf