By Laura Usher
In 1988, two advocates from NAMI Memphis were the driving force behind the first crisis intervention team (CIT) program. Ann Dino and Helen Adamo were driven by outrage at the way their families were treated by police. But their advocacy was persistent and thoughtful; ultimately, the city of Memphis and the police chief worked with them because they presented a solution that would help both individuals and families affected by mental illness and police.
As NAMI members have followed in the footsteps of NAMI Memphis to help start hundreds of CIT programs in communities nationwide, they have learned a lot about what makes a successful CIT program, and the role NAMI Affiliates can play.
Building the Partnership
CIT programs are only successful in the long term if they are built on strong partnerships between mental health advocates, mental health providers and police. A training-only approach to CIT will be only somewhat effective, and only in the short-term. The goal of CIT is to change hearts and transform the community, and that can only be accomplished with genuine relationships. NAMI Affiliates can contribute to this challenging process by:
- Bringing the potential partners to the same table. By identifying shared challenges, and asking representatives from law enforcement and mental health provider agencies to work together, NAMI Affiliates can help build the foundation for a strong partnership.
- Serving a resource to law enforcement agencies. Often the way to convince a potential partner to work with you is to offer them help with a problem. Before demanding that police department adopt CIT, NAMI Affiliates can offer to help law enforcement with basic mental health information and training. Often a one hour NAMI In Our Own Voice presentation can open the door for future partnership and training. NAMI Affiliates can educate law enforcement agencies about NAMI education and support programs, and suggest that NAMI programs could be resource to the families that officers encounter in a crisis.
- Responding to tragedy with an offer of a solution that could help prevent future tragedies. It’s natural to be outraged when a person with mental illness is injured or killed when interacting with police. The best way to make something positive out of a tragedy is to offer a solution, like CIT, that could help prevent future tragedies and offer to help with implementing the solution.
- Identifying champions. Sometimes selling CIT is easier if the message comes from a trusted leader or high-profile individual. NAMI Affiliates can identify a community leader such as a law enforcement leader, government official, judge, business leader or a member of the media with a personal connection to mental illness and interest in championing CIT.
Represent the Needs of Individuals and Families
CIT programs should be guided by a steering committee of all the agencies involved, including the NAMI Affiliate, mental health provider agency and law enforcement agency. As part of this committee, NAMI Affiliates have a unique role: to make sure that the needs of individuals and families affected by mental illness are heard at every step. These committees help to identify resources and challenges in the community, plan how to coordinate services, organize CIT training, problem-solve and sustain the program over the long-term. At every step, the need of individuals and families should be included and a representative from your NAMI Affiliate should be a permanent member of this committee.
CIT training takes a lot of planning. Any one of the partner agencies may designate a CIT coordinator whose responsibility is to coordinate training and promotes smooth communication between the partners. Sometimes the NAMI Affiliate plays this role, but not always. NAMI members can pitch in, with other partners, to make sure training manuals are copied, chairs are set up, lunch is served and the week goes smoothly.
NAMI Affiliate leaders should carefully select presenters to participate in the CIT training who can be honest, positive and constructive. Sometimes NAMI members feel anger and frustration with past behavior by police. If possible, it’s best to resolve this privately with the sheriff or chief. It’s never appropriate to use the CIT training to air grievances or accuse officers of wrongdoing.
NAMI members present during the training on the following topics:
- NAMI’s mission and programs. CIT officers need to know what NAMI is, who we represent and how we can help them. It’s helpful to describe NAMI’s education and support programs, and provide a card or brochure that officers can give to families in crisis to help them easily connect with NAMI. Officers also appreciate hearing how important CIT is to NAMI members and that the community is grateful that they volunteered for CIT training.
- The individual experience of mental illness. An individual with lived experience should tell their story and give officers a chance to ask questions. Police officers respond to mental health crisis situations all the time; this presentation may be the first time they talk with a person in recovery. It’s important for officers to get a perspective that recovery is possible and that their help could make a difference for an individual in crisis. This presentation can be a NAMI In Our Own Voice presentation.
- The family perspective of a mental health crisis. A NAMI presenter should explain why families call police to help their loved ones, what they are hoping for and how officers can help them in a crisis.
- Group meetings with individuals living with mental illness. Many CIT programs schedule informal face-to-face meetings between a group of officers and a group of individuals living with mental illness. This gives officers another opportunity to really develop empathy and relationships with individuals. These conversations don’t necessarily center on mental illness; rather, the group can talk about relationships, hobbies, sports, jobs, kids or other common interests.
Support and Honor CIT Officers
Officers usually volunteer for CIT training because of a personal connection with mental illness or a desire to help others in their community. Responding to crisis calls is challenging, and most CIT officers get no extra pay or perks. NAMI Affiliate can help keep CIT officers motivated and dedicated to their jobs by spreading the word about CIT and thanking officers for good service. Here are some ways to do that:
- A NAMI leader can present at the CIT graduation and express NAMI’s appreciation.
- NAMI Affiliates should take the lead on planning an annual awards ceremony to honor outstanding CIT officers.
- When an individual or family receives excellent service from a CIT officer, they can write a letter of thanks to the officer and his or her supervisor. This shows the chief or sheriff that the program is important to the community, and provides the officer a morale boost.
- NAMI Affiliates can work with local media to publicize CIT trainings and CIT success stories.
- CIT officers should be invited to attend NAMI meetings, NAMI Walks and other events.
- Finally, NAMI Affiliates can spread the word about CIT among NAMI members and the broader community, so that people know to ask for a CIT officer in a crisis.
For more ideas on how to keep your CIT program strong in the long-term, read chapter five of NAMI’s CIT for Youth implementation manual.
Advocating for a CIT program in your community takes patience and a real willingness to work in partnership with the police. NAMI members have always been willing to work hard for worthwhile change. If you need help or advice along the way, ask your fellow NAMI Affiliate leaders or contact NAMI’s CIT Center.
- NAMI California’s Statement about The Santa Barbara Tragedy: What Communities and Families Can Do (namisouthbay.com)
- CIT Not Just a Law Enforcement Program (blogs.psychcentral.com)
- Sonoma County MST & NAMI! (namisouthbay.com)
- Mental health advocate says violence and mental illness shouldn?t be so connected (channel3000.com)
- Group aims to help people get mental illness under control (abqjournal.com)
- Crisis Intervention Teams For Vets: Sure Beats Jail (nation.time.com)
- How Police Officers Are (or Aren’t) Trained in Mental Health (theatlantic.com)
- In Our Own Voice Training in Vancouver (namisouthwestwa.wordpress.com)