Officers get view of mental illness

June 15, 2008|By Madison Park | Madison Park,Sun Reporter

Will was the model student, lacrosse captain, student president at school. The Harford Technical High School whiz landed a four-year scholarship to the Johns Hopkins University. Everyone who knew William Garrett said the intelligent, affable teenager would one day be the president.

Soon after arriving at college, he started hearing voices. Will accused his father of poisoning their dog. His grades in college began to falter. And he began seeing things, said his younger sister, Nicole Kanyuch.

Nicole, 14, told the story of her older brother, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia last year, to a room full of police officers.

"The voices insult and aggravate him," she said. "He worked long and hard to lead a successful life, and it was destroyed in six months."

She spoke at the end of a four-day training session during which 35 police officers from five agencies policing Harford County learned about responding to situations involving people with mental health illnesses.

The purpose of the crisis-intervention training is to better understand mental illnesses and people with the conditions, said Sharon Lipford, executive director for the Office of Mental Health.

"Officers are learning skills to deescalate and stabilize the situation," she said.

Many people with mental illnesses end up in hospital emergency rooms or at the county's detention center, officials said.

"The Detention Center has turned into an infirmary and a homeless shelter," said Sheriff L. Jesse Bane. "If we could remove those people from the Detention Center, we wouldn't have to build another jail. At times, the number of who's in there that shouldn't be there is as high as 70 to 75 percent. When we look at that and do nothing about it, it's shame on us."

The Sheriff's Office, the Maryland State Police and police officers from Harford's three municipal departments teamed up with staff members from the county's Office of Mental Health and Upper Chesapeake Health to create a crisis intervention team for transferring people with mental illness from police custody to mental health systems.

Officers learned about personality disorders, schizophrenia and dementia, and how to recognize them. In one lesson, they wore headphones and were assigned to perform everyday tasks while they listened to voices.

The officers are part of the crisis team and will respond to mental illness-related calls. At the end of their training Thursday, Nicole reminded them of why they were there.

"The real truth why you should care about the mentally ill is that they're all people," she said. "The homeless, the sick, they're people, too. The mentally ill are people who stood before us - neighbors, friends, sisters, brothers and parents."

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