I approached Mental Health First Aid with typical police skepticism. It was not long before my police academy and mental health colleagues realized the course could indeed accomplish a key mental health training objective: Providing training to all potential first-responders, enabling them to acquire basic knowledge and skills to respond to individuals in psychological distress. The volume of calls for police service associated with mental health increasingly demanded police intervention at levels estimated at 7-10% of calls handled during a single patrol officer’ shift. This important function could not be reduced to a subset of volunteer officers given the prevalence of mental illness related calls we were and continue to face.
On December 17, 2012, while driving with my daughter past a pond near my home, I observed a vehicle partially submerged with a woman wading in the water. Upon arriving at the site to assist, I discovered this same woman seated in the vehicle. I climbed into the rear of the vehicle and quickly assessed the woman’s condition. It became apparent to me the woman was suicidal, attempting to kill herself. The distraught woman suddenly lunged into the pond and submerged herself under the water. I jumped into the pond and struggled to keep her head above water until help arrived. The woman was transported to a nearby hospital for an emergency mental health evaluation. I am convinced my Mental Health First Aid training helped me readily assess the woman’s mental state and quickly identify her suicidal condition. I learned later the wealthy, fifty-six year-old woman, mother of three, had recently separated from her husband of many years. These two incidents, and many like them, serve as reminders how public safety officers fall back on their training in times of crisis.
Measuring success of Mental Health First Aid is not limited to the countless acts of those arriving first on-scene. Public Safety Officers, regardless of rank or position, may find themselves confronted with a mental health crisis. Such was the case with Providence Police first-aider, Lieutenant Daniel Gannon, whose officers were confronted with a knife-wielding lunging youth. Although force intervention means were readily available to deploy, Lieutenant Gannon remained content with keeping the boy contained as he sought to calm him down and persuade him to drop the knife. When interviewed on scene by the press, Lieutenant Gannon credited the Mental Health First Aid training he received a few months earlier as a key factor in his ability to resolve this potentially violent incident.
Many officers and staff lack confidence in their ability to adequately respond to individuals in serious mental health crises. The more we learn the greater our chances of producing meaningful, productive and safe outcomes. The impact of education and training is greatest when public safety officers are able to identify situations involving mental illness, communicate and intervene effectively, so as to minimize the chances of violent incidents and maximizing access to care. The course has received resounding praise from within and outside the public safety community. There is no denying the increased communication between graduates, mental health practitioners, and Hospital ER staff since the training’s inception.
Mental Health First Aid skills can be applied anytime, anywhere, and to anyone in distress, bet it an Iraq veteran brother officer exhibiting symptoms of PTSD, an unemployed friend displaying signs of severe depression, or maybe a teenage family member presenting evidence of self-injury (cutting).