When someone is having a behavioral health crisis, the standard response is to send a police officer. However, introducing law enforcement without the proper mental health training into a crisis situation can lead to the affected individual’s arrest, or even death.
Two new community crisis response bills in the state Senate aim to change how we respond to mental health situations, taking a more just and understanding approach to help those with mental illness.
“Individuals who are experiencing a behavioral health crisis need to be met with help, and not handcuffs.” –Cynthia Harrison
Listen: Behavioral health advocates’ efforts to decriminalize mental illness.
Cynthia Harrison is the mother of an individual who has been jailed 23 times in response to behavioral health crises. “It has severely impacted his life. Once you on-ramp into the criminal legal system, it’s really difficult to get out of the criminal legal system.” The presence of law enforcement without the proper behavioral training can make severe mental health episodes worse, Harrison says. “Individuals who are experiencing a behavioral health crisis need to be met with help, and not handcuffs.”
State Sen. Stephanie Chang is a Democrat from Detroit representing Michigan’s 1st state Senate district. She says the community crisis response bills aim to change the state’s response to mental health crisis and “create grant fund programs … to help local jurisdictions across our state.” Chang says these bills have been a bipartisan effort, passing unanimously in the state Senate. “We hope that when the Legislature returns in December that we can get this done by the end of the year … So we can respond to mental health crises in a way that is more humane,” she says.
Summer Berman is director of Fresh Start Clubhouse, a community-based organization for people with mental illness. She says she thinks of the clubhouse approach “as a kind of PT for your mental health or as a gym for your mental health. …. You need to do some PT to build that muscle strength back and clubhouse … helps people get back into a regular life and allows them to be productive members of the community.”
Berman says treating mental health with punishment or prosecution can worsen an individual’s condition. “Mental illness is not a crime. It’s a health condition. However, when someone is treated like a criminal, they are more likely to begin to act like one. And when they enter the criminal justice system, opportunities immediately begin to deteriorate or become limited.” Responding to behavioral health crises with law enforcement is misguided in many cases. “People with mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crime rather than to perpetuate it,” she says.