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Smoky Mountain Center Training Teaches WNC Officers How to Handle Mental Illness

Jan. 13, 2015. Between 25 and 40 percent of Americans with mental illness will pass through the criminal justice system at some point, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Officers face special challenges when interacting with people with a mental illness, substance use disorder or developmental disability.

In North Carolina and across the United States, people with a behavioral health or developmental disability condition have been hurt or even killed during encounters with police. Officers have also been killed by individuals with mental health challenges.

In western North Carolina, Smoky Mountain LME/MCO (Smoky) is training law enforcement officers to better communicate with people with these conditions to increase citizen and officer safety, help people get the treatment they need and reduce preventable arrests. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found, nationwide, an estimated 56 percent of state prison inmates and 64 percent of local jail inmates have mental health problems.

Since 2008, Smoky has trained more than 550 officers, including school resource officers, in Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) tactics. These tactics are used to help officers better understand possible behaviors of people with behavioral health or developmental disability concerns and to help connect them to treatment services. These trainings are conducted through a community partnership involving Smoky, law enforcement departments, NAMI and local community colleges.

At a Smoky CIT training, officers learn about different types of mental illness, including depression, dementia and schizophrenia. They also discuss issues related to substance use disorder and developmental disabilities. Trainers work with officers, sometimes through role-playing scenarios, to teach de-escalation techniques used to calm a person who is agitated or disruptive. Officers also learn about community resources available to help people who need treatment.

The first CIT program – a collaborative effort among law enforcement, advocates and mental health communities – was formally established in 1988 in Memphis, Tenn. The Memphis model has been adopted by hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country in the past 25 years. In North Carolina, more than a quarter of all law enforcement officers are now certified in CIT.

Training officers in responding to calls involving people with behavioral disorders or developmental disabilities can improve officers’ knowledge, attitude and skills, as well as increasing referral to services and decreasing arrests. Officers are often the first responders to emergency calls involving people with a serious mental illness, a drug or alcohol problem or a developmental disability. Improving police responses to people with these disorders is of growing importance in the mental health community and the criminal justice system.

For more information on CIT training, contact Lisa Astin, Smoky Clinical Training Coordinator, at828-225-2785, ext. 5129, or at lisa.astin@smokymountaincenter.com.

About Smoky Mountain LME/MCO

Smoky Mountain LME/MCO manages public funds for mental health, substance use disorder and intellectual/developmental disability services in Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Buncombe, Caldwell, Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey counties in North Carolina. Access to services is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling 1-800-849-6127. Visit Smoky online at www.smokymountaincenter.com.