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April 5, 2004
Police-training program focuses on needs of persons in psychiatric crisis

Maine’s Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) program draws officers from New Hampshire for the first time

Maine’s only intensive weeklong training program to prepare police officers for intervening in the most effective manner when they encounter individuals in psychiatric crisis was held April 5 through 9 at the new Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook, Maine. ‘Crisis Intervention Training’ (CIT), a collaborative educational program of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Maine, Ingraham, Spring Harbor, and the Portland Police Department, has been provided to nearly 70 law enforcement officials in Maine, and this week’s program for the first time included New Hampshire officers.

Originating in the Memphis, TN, Police Department, CIT is unique in its combination of empathy- and practical skills-training for law enforcement officials who respond to psychiatric emergencies. The program includes an overview of psychiatric illnesses, including their effect on behavior, as well as discussions with mental healthcare consumers about the importance of responding respectfully and safely to individuals experiencing a psychiatric emergency.

Educators include individuals who have mental illness, mental healthcare professionals, family members who experience mental illness firsthand, advocates for the mentally ill, and emergency room staff, all of whom are impacted by psychiatric emergencies. Graduates of the program are certified as CIT officers, who are called to respond to psychiatric emergencies in their patrol areas due to their expertise.

The Maine CIT collaborative is a two-year-old grant-funded project that so far has trained law enforcement officers in police departments such as Portland, South Portland, and Westbrook, Maine. In Portland alone, more than a third of the force is CIT-certified. Next week’s program will include officers from Portland, Westbrook, and South Portland, as well as New Hampshire officials from the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Department, and the Keene and Jaffrey Police Departments.

“We are very pleased to have been recommended to our peers in New Hampshire by the Memphis CIT program,” says Sgt. Robin Gauvin, CIT team leader of the Portland Police Department. “This speaks volumes about their faith in us as a provider of quality training for officers interested in learning more about the effects of mental illness on the people we serve.”

Consumers of mental health services in Portland think the training is making a real difference. Stacy Parady, a resident who has mental health issues and once participated as an educator in the CIT program, says she has noticed the changes since the Portland Police Department began training its officers. “They are far better skilled at helping de-escalate a crisis,” she said. “I’ve seen officers in action and have been very impressed with their ability to work with mental health professionals to bring about the best outcome.”

Melissa Gattine, special projects coordinator of NAMI-Maine, says she hopes interest in the program from the New Hampshire police departments will serve as a catalyst for additional training requests from Maine law enforcement agencies.

“Certainly our goal would be to have every department in Maine participate in some way,” Gattine notes. “Psychiatric illness affects one in four of us over a lifetime, and studies indicate that responding to a crisis in an effective manner can make treatment smoother for patients once they reach the emergency department or psychiatric hospital.”

Joyce Cotton, RN, associate chief of nursing at the Spring Harbor psychiatric hospital, agrees. “We have seen this training make a big difference in Portland,” she remarks. “When CIT-certified officers bring folks into the Maine Medical Center emergency room, the transition is much less stressful, which helps the treatment process begin in a timely manner.”

Ingraham’s Joe Everett, community liaison, says his agency’s mobile outreach staff work with the Portland CIT officers to help avert hospitalization of individuals in psychiatric crisis whenever possible. “Hospitalization is the most acute level of care,” he says. “The CIT officers work with us to identify those patients who would be better served in an outpatient treatment setting or at home.”

For his part, Officer Fintan Moore of the Keene, NH, Police Department, says the program appealed to him for many of the same reasons CIT has been successful in Portland. He is one of three New Hampshire law enforcement officials who will attend the weeklong CIT program next week. “Having this training provides a critical link between our department and the community,” Moore says. “We deal on a regular basis with people who are emotionally distraught or in psychiatric crisis. This training is bound to benefit everyone involved.”

The CIT program begins Monday at Spring Harbor Hospital with an overview of mental illnesses and substance abuse, followed by consumer presentations on Tuesday, visits to community mental health agencies on Wednesday, discussions with families experiencing mental illness on Thursday, and de-escalation techniques for young people in psychiatric crisis on Friday.

A CIT-certified officer himself, Sgt. Gauvin of the Portland Police Department says that he appreciates having received the training. “I am so much better able to relate to individuals in crisis than before,” he notes. “I now have a far deeper appreciation for what these people are going through, which allows me to perform my job in a much more helpful manner.”

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