If you began working in your local city jail when I did you probably worked with men with alcohol problems. Over the years the population of our city/county jails has changed. In 1998, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported there were an estimated 283,000 prison and jail inmates who suffered from mental health problems. That number is now estimated to be over 1.25 million. The rate of reported mental health disorders in the state prison population is five times greater (56.2 percent) than in the general adult population (11 percent). Women prisoners have an even higher rate of mental health problems than men: almost three quarters (73 percent) of all women in state prison have mental health problems, compared to 55 percent of men.
So it used to be really easy. Alcohol groups were easy to lead. Many of the men reported that they were “going to get sober and be an alcohol counselor.” Then it seemed like overnight everything changed. Mentally ill men and women begin to enter the criminal justice system. The courts, jails, prisons, and juvenile facilities had no idea how to handle or treat their new clients.
The local police departments really had a problem. As the number of mentally ill citizens came into contact with the police, the police really did not have the skills to successfully handle the situations. In 1988, the forward thinking Memphis Police Department joined in partnership with the Memphis Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), mental health providers, and two local universities (the University of Memphis and the University of Tennessee) in organizing, training, and implementing a specialized unit. This Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program is a community partnership working with mental health consumers and family members. The goal is to set a standard of excellence for police officers with respect to treatment of individuals with mental illness.
I have worked with our local Kansas City, Missouri police department on the CIT committee since its inception. It is a community partnership with the police department, community mental health centers, hospitals, Kansas City Alliance for the Mentally Ill, educators, and others. I am proud to say that that the Kansas City Missouri police department offers 40 hours of training, to its officers, on mental illness. The classes are taught by police officers and community members like me, who work in the mental health system. The classes have expanded to include corrections officers, court personnel, and others who interface with our mentally ill clients. You can even request a CIT officer to come to the scene of your 911 call.
The Crisis Intervention Team concept has spread throughout Missouri. Mental health clients, who were often misunderstood, are now treated with dignity and knowledge. Police calls are much safer, and the calls involving the mentally ill have better outcomes. I hope that your city has started the Crisis Intervention Team program. If not, become a leader in your community and advocate starting CIT.
Nancy White is a counselor who has spent much of her professional life working in corrections.