Last spring, a mental health training bill for all Minnesota police officers failed to pass. Without training, police officers statewide are largely ill equipped to deal with the increasing number of mental health crises in Minnesota. In May, the Star Tribune published a series of articles analyzing the ever-growing count of mental health crises, a number that has increased an average of 34 percent in the last six years.
While the bill was being debated in Minnesota last spring, I was living in New Haven, Connecticut, working as a homeless shelter case manager. One client’s story in particular sticks with me. He was about my age, but had a drastically different childhood. Growing up in an abusive home, he was transferred to foster care, where he experienced more trauma. At 19, struggling with mental illness and substance-abuse issues, he had nowhere to go and became homeless.
What if police had been trained better?
On a rainy night, he huddled in a laundromat that happened to be open after hours. When police asked him to move, he resisted and was arrested. This young man has untreated bipolar disorder, making it difficult for him to control his response to the police, especially in a stressful situation. What if the police had been trained in mental health care? Would they have approached the situation less abrasively? Could my client’s arrest have been avoided?
Fast-forward to today. I’m a graduate student back in my home state studying public health. When I found out about the police bill failing last spring, I was flabbergasted, recognizing the importance of proper training when addressing the needs of individuals with mental illness. Though the bill passed in the Senate, a hearing was not scheduled in the House, resulting in the failure of the bill. Police training has not kept up with the increasing number of mental health crises in Minnesota. Since police officers interact with individuals with mental illness on a daily basis, it is essential that they receive mental health training. Because every individual deserves proper treatment especially when interacting with law enforcement, it is crucial that the House reconsider this bill in the next legislative session.
Society hasn’t provided adequate alternatives
Since the 1950s, the number of mental health institutions has declined sharply. This is described as deinstitutionalizing mental health, meaning individuals can ideally be integrated into a community and cared for. However, society has failed to adequately provide alternatives to mental health institutions. Only 2.5 percent of the $40.9 billion dollars spent on health care yearly in Minnesota is spent on mental health and chemical dependency.
In Minnesota state prisons, the number of individuals who receive mental health services is 31.6 percent greater than the national average. Though some argue for improved mental health services within prisons, I find this measure to be reactive and not preventive. Others may argue that mental health has been criminalized, but regardless of the truth, this is difficult to prove with facts and numbers, making it hard for policymakers to back any real change in prison structure. About 2,500 individuals in Minnesota’s prisons were arrested with existing mental health issues and about 70 percent of these individuals were unmediated for mental illness at the point of arrest.
Back in Minneapolis, I think of my young client often. I helped him enroll in a housing program after he got out of jail, but this wasn’t easy because police intervention heightened his trauma. When individuals with mental illness encounter police, it can be confusing, stressful, and scary. The Star Tribune found that 67 Minnesota civilians experiencing a mental health crisis or with a history of mental illness have died at the hands of police since 2000, a startling number that represents 45 percent of fatalities caused by law enforcement.
If these individuals were appropriately treated or the police had been able to de-escalate the situation, these deaths and arrests potentially could have been avoided. Not only is this a loss in valuable human life, but also housing these individuals in prison costs the state about $122 million dollars yearly.
Minneapolis training and buddy system
Minneapolis police officers are incorporating the buddy system in order to increase partnership with trained mental health specialists, and as of September more than half of the department’s officers had taken the 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training course, the Star Tribune reported.
However, there is still no statewide training for police officers in regard to mental health services. A 40-hour training costs $625 per officer. This is worth every dollar if it saves valuable human lives. Overall, creating standardized mental health training for police officers is the most preventive measure when dealing with mental health crises. For the sake of both police officers and our citizens, it is imperative that policymakers vote in favor of upcoming legislation regarding police mental health training.
Madeline Johnson is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
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