GREENFIELD — The woman had been asked to leave her job. You need anger management, her boss told her.
Outside, she paced back and forth with a cigarette in hand, muttering, threw the lighter at the ground. Onlookers gawked, whispering about the woman’s behavior.
Fortville Police Department detective Marlin Durbin approached the woman and asked what she was going through. Her husband left and drained the bank account. Her boss is a real jerk, she told him.
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“It sounds overwhelming,” Durbin told her. “I’m here to help. … I just need to make sure you’re safe.”
The exchange was part of a role-playing exercise the Hancock County Crisis Intervention Team — made up of law enforcement, hospital officials and other stakeholders to better serve members of the community with mental health illnesses — hosted to help the county’s public safety officers learn ways to deal with people suffering from a mental illness.
This week, 27 public safety officers from across the county underwent a 40-hour training session on crisis intervention for community members suffering from severe mental illness.
Throughout the training, they learned techniques to calm an intense situation and how to more effectively interact with a member of the public who might be experiencing a mental health crisis that could make them a risk to themselves or others.
Wednesday and Thursday, organizers brought in amateur actors and actresses to test what officers had learned.
Historically, police officers have not had specialized training to deal with people struggling from a mental illness — autism, post-traumatic stress disorder or Alzheimer’s, for example — and their families who reach out for help, said Greenfield Police Department deputy chief Matt Holland, who has been through similar training in the past.
Law enforcement officers say sometimes those with mental health ailments don’t recognize their actions are wrong, or worse, criminal. They get confused or scared when a police officer approaches them. They might lash out or grow more upset.
But even if the person has committed a crime, locking them up in the county jail isn’t always the answer, officers say. Not when there are resources in the area that can better serve them. Armed with knowledge about the services provided in Hancock County, officers can help them, and sometimes save their lives, Holland said.
At the end of the role-playing skit, Durbin had calmed the woman down. She agreed to let him take her to her doctor, who could help her get the help she needs, whether through medication or the anger management her boss suggested.
Leaders of this week’s training told the officer he did everything right. He stayed quiet and calm; even when she raised her voice, his stayed level.
In the next year, department leaders hope some 100 officers will graduate from the program, Holland said. The organizations with staff members participating this week include seven county law enforcement agencies, Greenfield Fire Territory and the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center.
The Hancock County Crisis Intervention Team has been in the works for months, and this week’s training was the first in Hancock County. Organizers hope to host another training this year, Holland said.
Throughout the training, officers, firefighters and dispatchers learned from mental health professionals about what they might encounter, interacted with people who have experienced and recovered from mental health crises and learned how to soothe a heated situation.
They learned four strategies for handling a community member experiencing a mental health crisis: introduce yourself, ask for the person’s name, express to the person the emotions you are seeing and summarize the information they are providing.
Other guidelines include assuming the person has a real concern, meeting reasonable demands when possible (i.e. allowing them to smoke a cigarette if the say it will help calm them down) and reducing anxiety.
Gary Achor Jr., a deputy with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, said it seems now he’s being dispatched to more calls about people suffering from mental illness than he has in the past.
He underwent training to learn the best ways to handle those calls and gain a different perspective from people who have experienced a mental health crisis.
Throughout the week, he learned about the different resources available in the area, the various support groups offered through the hospital, for example.
Some he didn’t know were available, and he’s worked in law enforcement here for 20 years, he said.
Holland said this week’s training, which ends Friday with a graduation ceremony, went well. Those participating were engaged and open, and he hopes they left with a better understanding of what they can do to serve people struggling with mental health problems.
“It’s our job to get them the help they need,” he said.