First responders receiving training to face growing mental health crisis

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COLUMBIA, Mo. – Interactions between first responders and people with mental health issues are increasing across the country. So much so that first responders are receiving special training to recognize the signs of mental illness.

More than 500 law enforcement and behavioral health professionals from Missouri attended the 4th annual Crisis Intervention Team conference in Columbia. The goal was to train first responders to recognize and de-escalate a situation when a patient or suspect seems to have a mental health issue.

Paton Blough, a mental health advocate, says, “We’re not trying to take away their right to use force. We're trying to give them another option wherein certain situations they can avoid using force.”

Blough, the keynote speaker, was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder as an adult. He says if it wasn't for an officer who showed patience with him one night when he didn't have his medicine he might not be alive.

“Unfortunately, officers get more training on how to use force than how not to use force. I've had officers come up to me and say this is amazing stuff.”

More than 50% of officers involved shootings have suspects with a history of mental health issues. More than 50% of the inmate population deals with mental illness and 25% of our American population has suffered from a mental illness in the last 12 months. It’s an issue and police know it.

Lt. Colonel Troy Doyle of the St. Louis County police says, “When an officer goes inside a residence and encounters an individual going through a mental health crisis before we would have to use force. This is giving officers other tools in their tool belt.”

Dr. Rick Gowdy, Director of Behavioral Health for the Missouri Department of Health, says one of the reasons St. Louis has seen an increase in mental health problems is opioid abuse.

“That's why crisis intervention team (CIT) training is so important, to give officers training they need in addition to resources they need to deal with the challenges.”

Dr. Gowdy also says Missouri is one of the nation's leaders in this kind of training right now and they hope to have a CIT presence in every Missouri county.

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