Overcoming our mental health crisis

Don Guiberson
Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Mental health is often considered something outside of our normal well-being. We act like it’s different, foreign, apart from what we mean when we say we “feel good.”

The reality is our mental health…yes, yours and mine…is a critical and essential piece of who we are. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It helps us handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. When we ignore it, we shortchange ourselves, and all relationships in our family and community.

Why do we hesitate to say “mental health” out loud? For some, it makes them feel weak. For others, it’s embarrassing, confusing, something to be ashamed of. It’s that broken record of “we don’t talk about things like that.” WHY NOT?

Too often we let shame, stigma or “guilt by association” rule how we feel about mental health. That’s counterproductive to a healthy community. It’s foolish to let unrealistic myths distort reality. It comes at a high cost. Individuals isolate and sometimes pay the highest price by ending their lives. Families pay in heartbreak and anguish. All taxpayers pay higher costs when emergency hospital care or a jail cell are the norm and not the exception in a mental health crisis.

Since statewide mental health budget cuts in 2017-18 our county has limited access to many mental health resources. These gaps in services triggered an increase in law enforcement involvement in mental health related incidents. Law Enforcement officers are not physicians nor psychologists but frequently deal with individuals in mental crisis. Mental health issues aren’t only the tv drama diagnoses of schizophrenia or bi-polar. Mental illness includes depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm, PTSD, and many other struggles people experience.

Medications and therapy assist individuals to deal with mental health challenges. But not all people have access or choose to take these measures. We often deal with people who are in a deep crisis and yet once evaluated by a therapist, they are released from care if they are not at risk to harm to themselves or others. If considered potentially harmful, they are medicated in a mental health facility and released a short time later. But this is only a temporary fix and part of an endless cycle.

Once the person returns to the community, they step back on the merry go round of no access, inability to access, or choose not to access therapy and/or medications. Many don’t know how to access options, or where to go for help, or the help they need no longer exists locally, e.g., medication management, day treatment, or broad access to intensive outpatient therapy. This is when the person “falls through the cracks” of the system. Families are often unsuccessful trying to navigate the confusing mental health system for their loved one. This never-ending cycle creates emotional and financial burdens on families and communities and often results in increased jail and prison populations. It’s expensive!

The gaps in services cause law enforcement officers to not only serve as first responders in mental health crisis but expects them to make split decisions whether an individual is having a particularly bad day or they need immediate, professional intervention. In 2019, the Dillon Police Department and Beaverhead County Sheriff’s Office became involved in Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, an innovative, community-based approach to improve these encounters’ outcomes. CIT programs create connections between law enforcement, mental health providers, hospital emergency services, individuals with mental illness, and their families.

Nearly half of all Dillon Police Officers are CIT certified. More trainings are planned. CIT is a priority to assist us in these extremely difficult, and sometimes dangerous situations. It is helpful, but does not resolve the underlying gaps in mental health services that exist in Beaverhead County.

This mental health crisis is a major concern facing law enforcement. Sadly, my career has far too many heartbreaking stories associated with this issue. Imagine the way you feel immediately after the death of a loved one. Now imagine that feeling never dissipating. This is the daily reality for many who deal with mental health challenges. They don’t need our contempt or condemnation, but rather our understanding and advocacy for better services.

Become part of the conversation. Join the Beaverhead Mental Health Local Advisory Council which meets the second Friday of every month at noon. Our next meeting is Friday, June 11th at noon on the second floor of the UMW Library. Email us at dillonmhlac@ gmail.com to join as we develop a crisis diversion planning grant.

Good mental health is important for all of us. Take ownership. Take action.

Don Guiberson is the Chief of the Dillon Police Department.