Send Nurses and Social Workers, Not Cops

Send Nurses and Social Workers, Not Cops


Imagine your dad complains of crushing chest pain. Or your brother hits his head and now can’t
stop vomiting. Your kid has a terribly high fever and isn’t responding well. You call 911,
obviously, seeking help of a medical professional. Instead, police respond and put your dad in
handcuffs while his heart muscle deteriorates, as he struggles to breathe. Your brother is placed
on the ground, in a pool of his own vomit, with his hands cuffed behind his back. Your feverish
child is placed face down on the ground and put in zip ties. We can all easily see how inhumane
and inappropriate handcuffing a sick person is. So why do we do it to those who are mentally
ill?


The history of seeing mental illness as criminal behavior or a moral failing is long and fraught
with abuse. Sadly, it’s not new that we treat those with what some of us call an “invisible
illness” as deviants. Long ago, mental illness was thought to be the result of sin, evil spirits,
even moon phases (see the origins of the word lunatic). After that, we put them in facilities they
weren’t allowed to leave, basically a prison, where they were tied to beds and walls, not allowed
visitors, and overmedicated. They were subjected to all sorts of terrible experimental treatments
over the years, including invasive brain procedures, insulin therapy that would put them in a
coma with the hopes of them “being normal” upon waking, and torturous electroconvulsive
therapy that is very different than it is now. Once these terrible conditions were exposed, the
state hospitals were shut down, all the patients released, with no plan for transition to a
community care model. To this day, mental health services are overwhelmed, underfunded, and
inaccessible to many, especially the poor and people of color. Treatment now, if you get it,
typically includes a combination of medication and therapy. But even the medications of today
have terrible side effects, from dry mouth, sexual dysfunction, changes in appetite, feeling spacy
or numb, and terrible withdrawal if you miss a dose (look up “brain zaps”).


Many, including first responders, still think people in the middle of having a mental health crisis,
which is a medical emergency, can just stop acting the way they are acting. Someone who is
suicidal cannot suddenly stop being suicidal just like someone who has diarrhea cannot suddenly
stop having diarrhea. Someone who is having acute psychosis, as Daniel Prude was, cannot stop
having acute psychosis. Having a police officer, who is not trained to deal with said situations, is
the same as calling plumber for electrical work. And calling for better training for officers to
recognize acute mental illness episodes is akin to saying your plumber should learn how to do
electrical work. Instead, you call someone who has the proper training.


We should be calling nurses and doctors for mental health emergencies, not the police. Teams of
trained professionals, who know how to handle these situations, should be sent when someone
calls for their family member having a mental health crisis. These services should, like the city’s
other emergency services, be provided to everyone, paid for by taxes. Currently, about one-third
of the city of Akron’s budget goes to police. We are buying all the wrong tools; we have lots of
hammers in our toolbox, and when all you have is hammers, everything looks like a nail. A
portion of the police budget for the city of Akron should be diverted to creating mental health
response teams. This will keep our city safer and healthier than responses from police whose job
is not to respond to mental health emergencies. It could be modeled after CAHOOTS (Crisis

Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), a program in Eugene, Oregon. This program has
demonstrated an overall cost savings and benefit to the community.


You can read more about the program in an interview here.


I think an important take away from the interview is the response from the crisis worker. When
asked if she carries any weapons or handcuffs, she says, “The tools that I carry are my training. I
carry my de-escalation training, my crisis training and a knowledge of our local resources and
how to appropriately apply them. I don’t have any weapons, and I’ve never found that I needed
them.”


As a nurse, I have worked with psychiatric patients and dementia patients, and both of these
populations can prove challenging. In the ten total years I’ve been working with these patients, I
have never been harmed by a patient, and I have never harmed a patient. I have successfully de-
escalated situations where my safety or someone else’s safety was in jeopardy. I have never felt
the need to brandish a weapon or restrain someone in a non-medical sense. Yes, medical
restraints are a thing, but they must be prescribed and monitored and are very rarely used. When
patients are having a mental health emergency, they need to be met with compassion and proper
techniques to ensure their safety.

. . .


Daniel Prude should still be alive today. He likely would be, if instead of a response from law
enforcement, he had received the services he required. We must work to restructure our cities
and everywhere else in our nation to function in a way that serves the needs of the people.

Alyssa Mauser, RN

Akron DSA

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