Officers, deputies receive training on dealing with mental illness

One in every 10 calls that a law enforcement officer will respond to will involve a mentally disturbed person and 25 to 46 percent of the people have been or will be involved with the criminal justice system.

Those were some of the numbers Luke Kramer, the director of training and development for Birch Tree Communities Inc., talked about Thursday morning during a class for law enforcement officers at the Southeast Arkansas Behavioral Healthcare System.

The class was designed to make officers familiar with some of the behavior exhibited by people with mental illness, and how to deal with those people effectively.

“Often times, our clients have contact with law enforcement agencies and this class is an opportunity to help you understand the illnesses our clients have,” said Kathy Harris, president and CEO of Southeast Arkansas Behavioral Healthcare System.

Kramer said Birch Tree Communities Inc., comprises a number of residential mental health treatment facilities around the state, and provides treatment for some of the most severe mental health problems.

“Mental illness is a medical condition and no one asked to have it,” Kramer said.

He said one in five people will suffer from some form of mental illness during their lives, and four of the top 10 reasons a person is placed on long-term disability are related to mental illness.

Bringing those numbers closer to law enforcement officers, Kramer said an average of half of the 375 to 500 people shot and killed each year by law enforcement officers suffer mental illness.

“You are the initial person in the treatment phase and your initial contact sets the stage for everything that follows,” he said.

Kramer said problems such as schizophrenia usually begin in males between 18 and 25, and perhaps later in females, and most experience some form of trauma or stress that initiates the symptoms.

Those might include stressing about a test, or a job, or any number of other things. People suffering will try self-medicating, using alcohol or drugs.

Next, he said a person might hear voices in his head and have delusional thoughts, explaining that even when presented with evidence to the contrary, the belief is still there that something will happen.

While admitting that he might get a little anxious if he sees a set of blue lights behind him, Kramer said that same set of blue lights behind a person suffering mental illness might trigger beliefs that the officers are “going to kill me, or put me in jail.”

To deal with people who are displaying symptoms of mental illness, Kramer said officers need to develop a relationship with them, and the first step needs to be listening to the person and what they have to say.

“Trust is gained by listening and showing them that you care about what they think,” Kramer said.

“Punishment is not effective in shaping the behavior of people with symptoms of mental illness,” he said. “Build a rapport with them and you can push them into the right place.”