Other voices: Bills seek to alleviate mental health troubles

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 12, 2021

A bevy of bills before the state legislature seeks to improve how state and local agencies assist people struggling with mental health crises and related issues. They’re both promising and overdue.

One of them, House Bill 786, “Enhance Local Response/Mental Health Crises,” would provide funding for pilot programs to study how local police departments could respond to nonviolent emergency calls involving mental health, homelessness, substance use or other behavioral problems, with teams that include mental health professionals. Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, is among the bill’s primary sponsors.

The timing is fortuitous. Last week, a group submitted a petition to local authorities calling for much the same thing. More than 100 mental health professionals signed the petition, promoting a system that trains emergency dispatchers to figure out whether someone calling for help needs a mental health professional, a police officer, or both.

According to the petition, while police expect people to comply with their directions, “a person with mental illness or disability may not be able to comply with an officer’s order.”

The petition also asserts that because of “generations of trauma and systematic oppression,” Black and Latino people can be impacted more by the presence of police.

“In my 28 years of experience working in the field of intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health, I have never carried nor needed a weapon, a Taser, pepper spray or handcuffs, despite the fact that I have supported hundreds of people, including young adults, in behavioral crises,” Selene Johnson, with the group Hate Out of Winston, said during a recent meeting of the city’s Public Safety Committee.

Neither of these efforts should be mistaken for an attempt to “defund the police.”

“Our goal is not to demonize law enforcement, but to address the fact that they are not properly trained to be the primary or most appropriate responders in all situations,” the petition states. “There are times when law enforcement is the right professional, and there are times when they are the default professional, simply because of the existing system.”

But the legislation and petition follow a string of highly publicized incidents throughout the nation in which police responded to people experiencing mental health crises with force that tragically led to the death of the person in need.

“A person shouldn’t lose their life because they’re experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition,” Angela Kimball, national director of advocacy and public policy at the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said in an interview last year. “People deserve help, not handcuffs.”

Such incidents scream out for a better response. The pandemic may have exacerbated some mental health difficulties — and made all of us a little more sympathetic toward mental health and emotional needs — but these problems existed long before the stress of sequestration.

Professionals trained in how to deal with mental health crises and available for emergency dispatch would be an important step in the right direction.

Winston-Salem is one of several North Carolina cities involved in a study, sponsored by RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, that looks at how police respond to cases involving mental and behavioral health issues.

A civilized society can look at problems like these and respond to them with compassion, wisdom and whatever resources are required. With public awareness growing and responsive legislators like Lambeth, a former hospital executive, we may be reaching the critical mass needed to make actual improvements.

— Winston-Salem Journal