Police train to cope with mentally ill

Two police officers walked into a room where a young man with bipolar disorder was frantically writing something. He hasn’t taken his medication in several days, and his mother, sitting on the side, aggravated him by calling him crazy. In minutes, the officers managed to defuse the situation and convince the man to go to a hospital.

The situation may have ended differently had it not been a staged scenario put on by the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office as part of a semiannual crisis intervention training program.

The four-day intensive program teaches police officers, security guards and paramedics how to best respond to emotionally distraught or mentally ill individuals. The program is run with the help of mental health professionals from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Kaiser-Permanente Medical Center in Redwood City.

“At police academy, they get some training in dealing with mental illnesses, but it’s not extensive,” San Mateo County Deputy Sheriff Will Pickens said. “This program is very valuable because a good percentage of calls we get are from people in crisis — emotionally disturbed or mentally ill. We’re trying to minimize the use of force in these situations.”

Students learn techniques used by mental health professionals in defusing volatile situations such as interviewing and putting a person at ease. Then they role-play ­to test their skills.

“We’ve been advocating for this for years,” said Pat Way, who serves on NAMI’s board of directors and is a parent of a mentally ill person. “There is a lot of fear surrounding mental illness. This course saves lives of officers and mentally ill persons. It’s invaluable.”

The crisis intervention training started in San Mateo County three years ago, and there is anecdotal evidence that it helps. The Sheriff’s Office is beginning to collect data to measure its effectiveness.

For now, the program’s students are optimistic it will help with their job.

“We’re on the front lines dealing with the mentally ill,” said Regor Aguilar, security officer at San Mateo Medical Center. “This really helps us foresee what kind of situation we are in.”

svasilyuk@examiner.com

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