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Collaboration, education are key to dealing appropriately with mental-health crises

Ten years ago on June 12, Barbara Schneider, a middle-aged woman with two master’s degrees, was tragically shot by Minneapolis police during a mental-health crisis call. Incidents where police are dispatched to respond to people like Barbara happen regularly on the streets of the Twin Cities. We hear about some of them in the news.

These stories sometimes end in tragedies involving the use of force to protect the public safety. For a family, a workplace or a community, each of these episodes is a difficult event that creates lasting tragic memories for those directly involved, including the first responders.

After Barbara’s death, the Barbara Schneider Foundation (BSF) was founded to try to prevent future tragedies through training and education. One such event, co-sponsored by the University of St. Thomas, will occur on April 7 in Minneapolis; it is open to the public.

Systems just catching up with brain-science advances
Each year one in four Americans will experience some type of mental-health problem, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. So these are not exotic events. But because our health-care and first-responder systems are just now catching up with the dramatic advances in brain science of the last 15 years, we have yet to fully implement a system that provides appropriate mental-health care on a timely basis to all who need it.

When communities are stressed by dramatic events beyond their control, like chronic unemployment, community violence, collapse of the housing market or Hurricane Katrina, our systems are stretched to the breaking point. When all else fails, we find a way to maintain at least the bare bones of a public-safety system, and the police officers in their squad cars become the mental-health resource of last resort. They respond to the mental-health emergencies that the other professional systems are not able to deal with.

Collaboration among the systems is the key to preventing mental-health crises and supporting recovery. BSF brings together the mental-health and public-safety systems and helps both deal with mental-health crises. BSF trainings are provided for police; detention and corrections; social service, education and mental-health professionals; EMS; nursing and allied health staff; those who work with veterans; attorneys and judges.

Realistic tools can help prevent another tragedy during crisis
BSF partners with expert trainers and local agencies to address the concrete needs of those who encounter individuals struggling with a mental illness. The goal is to promote a respectful response to people who live with mental illness; patient-centered training and care focused on recovery; and crisis-intervention training that focuses on lowering the risk of future episodes. Trainings do this by providing realistic simulation, practical exercises of mental-health crisis situations, incorporating the latest research, data and best practices. The foundation and trainers develop community partnerships among law enforcement, mental-health professionals, consumers and advocates. They work with their clients to eliminate the need for the use of seclusion and restraints. And they always have a person who lives with mental illness providing knowledge and direction about the training.

The intention of both the training and the outreach is to provide realistic tools for front-line workers so that people with mental-health issues can be helped and so that we can avoid a repeat of the Barbara Schneider tragedy.

An effective way to do that is holding community conferences and education sessions.

On April 7, BSF and the University of St. Thomas are co-sponsoring the 4th annual public policy and mental-health conference, “Addressing Mental Health Issues in Underserved Populations: Lessons From Real Life.” The keynote speaker is Cecile Watters Tebo, who heads the New Orleans Police Department mental-health swat team. She will speak about what she and her colleagues faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when more people than ever faced mental-health crises at a time when there were fewer hospital and other resources to help them.

There will also be two panels of Minnesota practitioners who will help us understand the challenges we still face. The public is welcome to the conference, which will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Thornton Auditorium on the Minneapolis campus of the University of St. Thomas. For details, go here.

No amount of training or discussion can avert every crisis, but I believe the more we work together and explore all the options, the greater the chance we’ll have of avoiding a tragedy.

Mark Anderson is the executive director of the Barbara Schneider Foundation.

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