(WBRE/WYOU) — First responders deal with uncertainty every day they answer the call.
And more and more of them are responding to a crisis situation. In the last decade, departments in our area have worked as a team to properly help those in need. A crisis situation can be domestic or personal trauma. Departments across the country and right here in our own backyards are working to intervene and offer help to those who struggle mentally.
Since 2010, first responders, county corrections workers, and 9-1-1 dispatchers have been answering the call by understanding mental health issues before responding.
“At the very base of it, it improves safety and it improves safety for everyone. It improves safety for law enforcement, it improves safety for the individual they’re responding to, and everyone else in the community,” Marie Onukiavage, NEPA Crisis Intervention Team program co-coordinator said.
Onukiavage and Ray Hayes lead the Crisis Intervention Team or CIT in northeastern Pennsylvania serving Lackawanna, Wayne and Susquehanna Counties. Training is a week-long, 40-hour course that allows first responders to recognize someone with a mental illness. A simple “hello, how are you” can go a long way in de-escalating a crisis situation.
“Being able to respond in a way that helps them feel safer may avoid them doing things, taking action that could make a difficult situation much worse,” Onukiavage said.
The team involves not only those on the front line, but experts who deal with mental illness every day.
“It’s behavioral health, it’s consumers, it’s advocacies such as NAMI. Because, again, as I said, mental health issues are a community issue,” Hayes said.
The international program started in our region after a deadly police shooting in the city of Scranton in 2009. Police say they responded to a situation involving a woman named Brenda Williams. Not knowing how to deal with the situation, it escalated with Williams charging police officers with a knife. Officers responded by shooting Williams.
“Today, now officers have an additional tool in their toolbelt to help get those emotional disturbed individuals the help that they need,” Scranton Police Department Chief Carl Graziano said.
Graziano says 40 percent of officers in his department are trained. Leading to a staggering 65 percent decrease in the use of force over the last decade.
“I don’t take this, say this lightly when I say it’s one of the most interrogative training and progressive trainings that I have seen in my career that has actually showing real-time results,” Graziano said.
The entire team’s mission is to bridge the gap between law enforcement, mental health providers, hospital emergency services and the individuals as well as their families.
“Our jobs as CIT-trained officers is to give those individuals, not to diagnose them, not to solve their longterm issues, but to throw them a liferaft,” Graziano said.
“We’re trying to look at this from a holistic standpoint. How best do we get this individual the services that they need and incarceration is not always the answer,” Hayes said.
Local community mental health centers, including the National Alliance on Mental Health or NAMI, help in those services. Onukiavage is the executive director at NAMI and supports individuals in northeastern Pennsylvania.
“It’s really been an honor for me to be a part of this these last 10 years,” Onukiavage said.
This is the third year NAMI received a grant for the training. They work with the Advocacy Alliance and have been able to include training in Wayne and Susquehanna Counties.
Now once a first responder completes the CIT program, they will not have to renew, but will need four hours of additional mental health education or training a year.
The Advocacy Alliance secured a three-year funding from the Weinberg Foundation, Mose Taylor Foundation, and Northeastern PA Alliance.
For more information on NAMI, click here.