If you’re in the difficult position of caring for a loved one with mental illness during the COVID-19 epidemic, when is it time to involve law enforcement? With many of us under lockdown orders, actively sheltering in place — and those of us who aren’t in lock-down still practicing intensive social distancing — it’s likely that many if not most of us are struggling. Social distancing leads to isolation, which can cause or escalate anxiety and depression. Worrying about money, about our jobs, about the health of our families and friends; watching alarming news clips; seeing small businesses and laid-off employees around us suffer – this is an unprecedented time of collective concern and doubt.
One of my professional occupations entails part-time work in the mental health field, and I am married to a police sergeant. This gives me a unique perspective on the law enforcement side of mental health. My spouse reports that after an initial period of relative quiet immediately after the lockdown order in our city was announced, police officers are now experiencing a spike in service calls to residences with mentally ill family members.
When Should I Call the Police?
The mandate is clear: if the person is a threat to themselves, either through verbal statements or observed actions, or to others, police should be called.
If the situation allows, the caller should give as much information as possible about the mental health emergency to the dispatcher, and request that a crisis intervention team (CIT) officer be called in addition to responding personnel. At this time, not every officer is CIT-trained, but the city police department hopes to train many if not all officers in recognizing and responding to mental health crises by the end of the year.
When the Police Arrive at Your Home
Once first responders arrive at the home, if possible, the caller should:
- Meet the responding officer(s) outside the residence
- Brief the first responder. Give a quick history of the individual struggling with mental health.
- Let the first responder or police officer know if the individual is armed or has access to any weapons inside the home.
This will help them determine the appropriate action plan.
What the Police and First Responders Will Do
Officers are mandated to act with ‘foremost regard for the preservation of human life and the safety of all persons involved.” Consequently, they are trained to use time as a tactic to negotiate, de-escalate and keep all individuals safe if the individual is dangerous and/or armed. Department supervisors will be dispatched in instances of armed/dangerous individuals to determine next steps.
If during the course of the call and subsequent investigation it is deemed reasonable that the individual is a threat to themselves or others, officers are mandated to take the person into protective custody for a mental health evaluation at a pre-approved qualified mental health facility.
During police responses, it’s best to remain as calm as possible. Be prepared that, if necessary, your loved one may be transported in the back of a police car or ambulance, and handcuffs are sometimes also required. During non-quarantine times, officers would also ask that a family member accompany the individual to the medical facility; this procedure may be omitted during times of social distancing. To be clear, laws vary from state to state; if you have questions about the laws where you live, you can contact your local police department, or get in touch with your local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
These are unprecedented times for us all. At NAMI CCNS, we are here to help, even during this time of self-distancing. We have placed many of our mental health support groups online for remote participation, and as always, our services are free. Please visit us at www.namiccns.org, and please take care of yourself and each other as we work through this together.