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Community bands together to form crisis intervention teams

The National Alliance on Mental Illness gave Idaho an “F” for its mental health services last year. Currently, Bonner County has no full-time practicing psychiatrist, no in-patient mental health beds, no Assertive Community Treatment teams, no Crisis Intervention Team, no mental health drug court, and a real lack of supportive housing for people with mental illness, both transitionally after discharge from the hospital or a corrections facility and long term.

According to NAMI, one in four adults experience a mental health disorder in any given year, and one in 17 lives with a serious mental illness. With the decrease in in-patient psychiatric beds and declines in community mental health services, people with mental illness often go without the treatment they need. When someone experiences a psychiatric crisis, police usually respond first. Jails and prisons often end up housing these individuals, and they end up in a no-win situation, cycling through the system. This results in high costs to communities, burdens the police and the courts, and is tragic for the people suffering with mental illness and their families.

NAMI Far North members decided to take a proactive stance and make positive changes for the mentally ill by advocating for a Crisis Intervention Team in Bonner County. They held a luncheon in mid-July at the Cedar Hills Church. Over 120 community members came, including judges, police and probation officers, lawyers, mental health care providers, and NAMI, Bonner County Community Partnership and Human Rights Task Force participants.

Christine Holbert, president of the Bonner County Human Rights Task Force, attended the luncheon.

“We’re collaborating with NAMI,” Holbert said, “to put in the CIT program and any other programs to help the mentally ill.”

Les Newman, a member of the NAMI Far North board of directors, greeted me at the door.

“We’ve been working for about a month,” Newman said, “to put this luncheon together. Lt. Michael Woody is going to speak about the CIT program and then show everyone a slideshow.”

Lt. Woody retired from the Akron Police Department in 2002, where he was instrumental in establishing the CIT program there. Woody has received the national Compassion in Law Enforcement Award, the Heart of Gold Award, and the Forensic Leadership Award. Woody has consulted with police, mental health, and advocacy organizations throughout the country. He is also president of the CIT International organization.

According to Woody, ten percent of all police calls deal with mental illness, and those numbers are increasing.

“These calls are not easy to handle,” Woody said, “and could end tragically.”

In fact, Woody first got involved with the CIT program after he was personally involved in a situation with a 27-year-old mentally ill woman with a 7-year-old daughter.

“It ended very badly for her,” Woody said. “She died. I’ve had to carry that with me for many years. What bothered me the most was the daughter. She was a victim. I was a victim. The mother was a victim.”

Woody said the Memphis model of CIT was established in 1988. The model has several key components, including community collaboration between mental health providers, law enforcement, consumer advocates and family members; a 40-hour training program for law enforcement officers; and community and family involvement in decision-making, planning and leading training sessions.

CIT equips police officers with the tools they need to interact with individuals experiencing a psychiatric crisis by providing specialized training and creating a community collaboration to help meet the needs of mentally ill individuals.

Studies show that the CIT model helps keep people with mental illness out of jail and gets them into treatment. CIT also reduces officer injuries, SWAT team emergencies, and the amount of time officers spend on the disposition of mental disturbance calls.

CIT training is free to law enforcement officers. Unfortunately, hidden costs, like paying officers to work in the place of those sent to school, add up quickly. NAMI Far North has applied for a Community Collaboration Grant with the sponsorship of the Region 1 Mental Health Board to establish a CIT coalition, and will learn on October 1 whether they will be funded. Over 50 people attending the luncheon signed up for the Region 1 CIT Coalition.  The first meeting of the Coalition was held in August. Because Region 1 includes the five northern counties, Kootenai Medical Center is making available their video-conferencing equipment so people can participate at Kootenai County Medical Center, Bonner General Hospital or Boundary Community Hospital. A steering committee is being formed to plan the implementation of the training. NAMI Far North also began teaching an 11-week course, “Family to Family”, on September 16 at Bonner General Hospital.  This most helpful course is free to the public.

“I truly believe,” Woody said, “that most of your legislatures will change things when they realize CIT will decrease the dangers to officers. When people realize how unfair things have been for mentally ill individuals and their loved ones, things will change. We need to form community partnerships.”

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Desire Aguirre Desire Aguirre lives in Sandpoint with her daughter, DaNae, and numerous pets. An LCSC student, she plans on graduating May, 2009, with a bachelors in communication. Her favorite sport is riding her horse, Splash-of-Paint, into the wilderness with Cholo, her son's faithful dog.

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