Voices

Mental health lesson

Sgt. Bill Tilson of the Coeur d’Alene Police Department and Holly Bonwell, clinical supervisor for the Department of Health and Welfare, helped train law officers and others recently about how to respond to the needs of mentally ill people, especially during crises such as attempted suicides.  (Kathy Plonka)
Sgt. Bill Tilson of the Coeur d’Alene Police Department and Holly Bonwell, clinical supervisor for the Department of Health and Welfare, helped train law officers and others recently about how to respond to the needs of mentally ill people, especially during crises such as attempted suicides. (Kathy Plonka)

Officers learn to help mentally ill

Bonner County Sheriff Deputy Chris Bonner grew up around law enforcement. During the course of his career and the careers of now-retired family members, Bonner says he has seen progress in the way first responders handle crisis situations when interacting with those who suffer from mental illness.

”Back then (the practice) was to lock them up and say they were someone else’s problem,” said Bonner. “But we as a society cannot afford to do that.”

So when Bonner had the opportunity to attend a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team training program that addressed mental illness, he didn’t hesitate.

“I recognize that mental illness is something we deal with more than we realize,” said Bonner. “I wanted to be able to better communicate with people who are going through crisis.”

Bonner County Sheriff’s Office served as the host agency for the training, which was put on with the help of grants and volunteers from the National Alliance for Mental Illness’s Far North chapter, based in Sandpoint. Ann Wimberley, the chapter’s president, said she is grateful to those who take the time to learn more about this critical issue.

“It’s a huge investment of time for both individuals and departments,” she said.

Sgt. Bill Tilson of the Coeur d’Alene Police Department took the training in February 2009 and was recently named one of two Crisis Intervention Team Officers of the Year for 2009. He said the training has served him well. “The (CIT) academy gives law enforcement a full look into mental illness including signs and symptoms, the drugs used to treat mental illness, the thought processes of the mentally ill, along with strategies to work with those going through a crisis,” said Tilson. “I’ve used the training in suicide prevention calls, those suffering a crisis, and more.”

Among those in attendance at the latest training were deputies from Bonner County Sheriff’s Department, Kootenai County dispatchers, officers from as far away as Southern Idaho, and an employee of an assisted living home.

Holly Bonwell is a clinical supervisor at the Department of Health and Welfare in Coeur d’Alene. She serves as the mental health coordinator for the crisis team in this region.

“We are becoming much more aware of the needs and concerns of our consumers and community partners,” said Bonwell, who adds that the most common misconception is that individuals choose to be mentally ill and they can stop their behavior at any time. Nothing could be further from the truth and that is the most important lesson Bonwell wants people to learn from the crisis team training.

“People don’t choose to become mentally ill. (We need to) reduce the stigma, and provide officers with tools, resources and strategies to assist this population,” she said. One Sandpoint woman, Sara (not her real name), is pleased people are investing their time to learn more about mental illness. Sara’s adult son was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and she said family members are faced with many challenges – including how to cope during times of crisis – when helping a loved one cope with a severe mental illness.

“Our family has had a steep learning curve. We had to set aside preconceived notions about mental illness and develop ways to help our loved one cope with those awful symptoms to have a better life,” said Sara. “We are so appreciative to law enforcement agencies who have understood the need to approach these emergency responses in a more professional way by taking the training.”

Tilson recalls an incident where the training helped him calm a potentially suicidal teenager.

“I arrived on the scene with another officer and saw that his (the boy’s) father and brother were holding him down due to his violent nature,” said Tilson. But instead of arresting the boy, Tilson said he used the skills he learned in crisis training to communicate with him. “He was released, he sat up and we had a great conversation. In talking with him and the family, we were able to get him to the hospital for the help he needed rather than jail for a crime that may have been the result of his illness rather than the intent to injure someone. This is an example of how the training works. Ultimately, the goal in these cases is to choose the most appropriate path for a person with a mental illness, which is not always criminal activity.”

Although the CIT training ended just a few weeks ago, Bonner says he too has already used much of what he learned.

“It has already paid off huge dividends. I use the tools almost on a daily basis,” said Bonner who encourages all law enforcement to take part in this training. “It’ll make us a better agency and will make us better officers. And it will definitely make us a better asset to our community.”



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