A child living with bipolar disorder is often out of control. As parents, we do all the things we hope will defuse the situation. But what do we do when our child is raging, threatening their own safety or that of family members? To whom do we turn if our child runs away, or needs to be transported to a hospital, and we are unable to get him into the car? Often the next step, the only step, is to call the police for help.
All too often, the police have responded to domestic violence in ways that, while appropriate for criminal activity, often does nothing to help the family of a child with bipolar disorder, or may in fact make things worse. Police are taught to quickly take charge of a situation, intervene and move on. This is appropriate in most criminal situations, but often a recipe for disaster when applied to an unstable child.
CABF parents share their experiences:
"He had been going through months of some pretty bad rages, mixed with illegal drug use...when the police came, I was sitting on top of my son restraining him and I had bite marks up and down both arms. When I explained what was going on, the officer said (in front of my son) that he was just being a normal 13 year old. I couldn't believe it, I felt completely hopeless."
"The police tried to calm my daughter down and talk to her but it wasn't going well....I explained the situation. The officer asked if she was adopted (which was obvious because of the difference in skin color). When I told him she was, his reply was "I'd give her back". His tone just cut right through me. This was so early in our diagnosis that I really didn't know how to respond but was quite shaken.
Getting the Help You Need
The tide, however, is beginning to turn. With appropriate training, officers are able to apply interventions that provide individuals and their families with the support and help that they need during a crisis.
"I did let the police know of my son's diagnosis and state of functioning when I called them...they approached the situation in a very effective way, keeping very calm, reassuring him, etc. I was lucky, because it seemed obvious to me that these guys had received training, and that the appropriate and effective handling of situations like this had been made a priority. If they had been uninformed and insensitive, it could have been totally different."
"Our current town's police department has had special training to handle the mentally ill mandated by our county sheriff. We have met with several officers in reporting our son missing and they have been helpful and compassionate."
Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) programs are springing up in police departments around the country as a result of a program that originated in the late 1980's in Memphis, TN. After a mentally ill man was shot by Memphis police, the Memphis police department, in conjunction with the local chapter of the Alliance for the Mentally Ill, started a program to develop understanding and sensitivity towards dealing with mental health issues.
Known as the "Memphis Model", the focus of the training is on slowing down the call, de-escalating the situation, and connecting the individual with appropriate resources. Officers receive a total of 40 hours of classroom and practical (interactive) training that teaches them to reduce external distracters, use nonverbal language that is consistent with their verbal language, and understand the benefits of early intervention.
In communities where CIT programs exist, the efforts are paying of for both the police department and the community. The Memphis Police Department, for example, reports that since the program began:
- Arrests and use of force has decreased
- Patient violence and use of restraints in the ER has decreased
- Officers' injuries during crisis events has decreased
- Officers are better trained and educated in verbal de-escalation techniques
- Officer appreciation and recognition by the community has increased
- Cost savings
What You Can Do
CABF encourages parents to contact their police department to see if there is a CIT program available in your area. If one is in place in your community, you may want to ask for a CIT-trained officer during a crisis situation. As well, if your child has multiple episodes that lead to contact with law enforcement (cutting behaviors, suicide attempts, running away, drug use, etc.), it may be beneficial to inform the CIT officers of your child's diagnosis in advance so that they may better handle any situations that may arise.
Says one CABF family:
“I met with my village’s police department and told them about my son’s bipolar diagnosis BEFORE I ever needed to call them in an emergency. They were understanding, cooperative and made a note in our file. Since that time, we have had to call 911 twice to transport my son to the hospital and the police were effective in getting him to calm down. It was still a very traumatic experience for me, but I guess it could have been a whole lot worse."
If a CIT program doesn't exist in your community, talk to the local department about setting one up. The Memphis PD was able to set up their CIT program with no added cost to the city. Refer your local department to the Memphis model as well as others across the country. Contact your local NAMI (National Association of Mental Illness) chapter as NAMI has been instrumental in setting up CIT programs in different communities across the nation.