by Elizabeth Hanes
One evening several years ago, Mark Rahman’s adolescent child left home -- to “follow the moon,” it was later explained. This was not a metaphor. Experiencing mental health symptoms, Mark’s child walked continuously for 48 hours in a straight line toward the moon, scrambling over fences and wandering across busy streets in an effort to reach it. Sick with worry over his missing child, Mark contacted the police for help finding and detaining his child on an involuntary mental health hold (known as a ‘5150’ order). Eventually, the adolescent was found and returned home unharmed, but it wasn’t Mark’s only encounter with law enforcement regarding his now-adult child.
“Over the years, I’ve called the police at least 30 times to help me deal with my child,” Mark said, “and it used to be very scary. Today I feel much less anxious making that call, thanks to CIT.” However, the experience of having to go through a 5150 can be extremely traumatic for both the families and their loved ones. It is often a last resort for families to call the police for help.
The “CIT” Mark refers to is Crisis Intervention Training. This 40-hour continuing education program for police officers teaches them how to better respond to mental health crisis calls. Sponsored by Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services in partnership with the Oakland Police Department, the training program fosters cooperation and partnership between law enforcement and the community. In fact, Mark tells his story as part of a CIT panel comprised of family members and individuals with lived experienced of mental illness and mental health challenges. These panel members put a human face on mental health for police officers. In humanizing the subject for police personnel, Mark helps not only his family and his child, but any family that finds themselves needing to call 911 for assistance with a loved one.
“Early on, before CIT, it was difficult to have a 5150 call work out well,” Mark says candidly. “But the last time I had to call police for help with my child, they were able to get [the child] to go voluntarily, which is a huge difference from how things may have been handled before. This time, the responding officers used de-escalation techniques and maintained a calm demeanor in their negotiations. It’s a very positive change over the way things used to go.”
Sharing his story as part of the CIT curriculum has not only given police officers insight into the human side of mental health, it has helped Mark himself. “I now understand the officers’ point of view, and I’ve learned how to better initiate a phone call to the police department, starting with the dispatcher,” he said. “By conveying accurate information to describe the situation, I’ve noticed the officers arrive less stressed and more calm. I have a higher level of confidence the situation will work out now when I have to call.”
The program benefits even officers who haven’t gone through it, as trained CIT officers pass along strategies to their colleagues. This sharing of knowledge has had a positive effect on the community.
“I certainly believe the police are taking a partnership approach toward mental health crisis calls,” Mark said, “and that’s huge. By working together as a team, we can help these individuals get the treatment they need.” That’s certainly a benefit to any community.