Mental Health and Emergency Service Relations

In times of a mental health crisis, emergency dispatchers and law enforcement are often the first point of contact in dealing with individuals that may pose a threat to themselves or others. The people who call to help these individuals (usually family, friends, or bystanders) do so with the intent of bringing in a third party to deescalate the situation and provide services that may put them in contact with resources the mentally ill individual may need, like transporting them to the hospital for psychiatric care. Unfortunately, many law enforcement officers are not trained to deal with situations that involve mental health emergencies, which can have criminal, injurious or even lethal consequences. It is clear that first responders are in need of training in how to deal with these individuals to provide safer and more effective alternatives to mental health emergency responses.

Fortunately, there are programs that seek to make this change throughout the country and provide such training to law enforcement. CIT International is a non-profit membership organization that seeks to develop and implement Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) programs in law enforcement agencies and mediate partnerships with law enforcement, mental health agencies and resources, and the community. The National Alliance on Mental Health also partners with law enforcement agencies to develop 40-hour curriculum CIT programs to train them in how to deal with problems that arise during a mental health emergency situation. According to NAMI, there are 45 states that currently have these programs. However, most states only have them in a handful of counties, leaving a large portion of the law enforcement population in the state, and country, untrained. These programs are not mandatory, which makes it difficult to implement these programs in police departments that don’t have the time, funds, or interest in training their officers through CIT programs. Without these types of training programs, officers are at risk of injuring others, or getting injured themselves, in responding to a mental health crisis in an ineffective manner. 

The burden of dealing with a potentially dangerous mental health individual does not fall solely on law enforcement. It is important for 911 dispatchers to also be trained to recognize a mental health crisis call when it comes in and to communicate that to law enforcement. This provides officers with a different expectation for the situation than they would have for a criminal emergency, which would alert them to approach the individual in a manner pertinent to the situation. Partnerships between first responders and mental health agencies and advocacy groups are imperative for continuing to educate and support law enforcement agencies even after crisis intervention training, as they can provide officers with resources for psychiatric treatment alternatives to incarceration for mentally ill people. Reformation of the relationship between police and mental health emergencies requires the cooperation of all aspects of both the mental health and law enforcement communities.

CIT International website:

NAMI Law Enforcement and Mental Health:

Calling for a mental health emergency: