When my family members needed help, I was told my only option was to go to the police

While police are often the default first responders for mental heath and substance use disorder crises, they lack adequate training and preparation.

By Celeste Kranick

Over 30 years ago my brother agreed to get the help he needed if I found a place. I recall flipping through the yellow pages of the phone book because we did not have internet in 1984. I found a place but because he didn’t have insurance he could not be admitted unless I called the police on him and reported his illegal drug use. I couldn’t believe that was the “help” he was offered.

Years later, after my brother attempted suicide, he was in the hospital for some time. When he was better and ready to be discharged, the hospital discharged him to the state mental hospital where I assumed be would get the help he needed. As he went away in the ambulance with the cops in tow, I stood there confused as to why the police were even involved.

When we arrived at the facility to bring my brother his belongings, we were surprised to find he was in a ward like a jail. There were heavy metal doors and guards standing post. It was very frightening to say the least. Once again, I found myself questioning, “Why imprison someone with a mental health condition?”

Tragically, my brother never received the help he really needed for his substance use disorder and mental health disorder. He died from HIV/AIDS which he contracted from IV drug use. Due to the stigma surrounding his conditions, he died with shame for himself and his family.

Despite doing everything I could to ensure that my children didn’t follow a similar path, this disease once again reared its ugly head and took over my family. This time, as I scoured the internet trying to find help for my child, my pleas were met with the same response that “the police are the only ones that can help.” I couldn’t believe that years later I was still receiving the same “advice” to call the police and that my child was being subjected to the same stigma, shame and judgment that my brother had battled.

Watching my loved one get handcuffed because he is mentally ill was trauma all over again.

The Problem

People in crisis related to mental illness and substance use disorder are more likely to encounter police than get medical attention. While substance use disorders and mental illness are health care issues, not crimes, encounters with police lead to millions of people with mental health and substance use disorders being jailed every year. Once in jail, most individuals do not receive the treatment they need, and upon release, many cannot access affordable, quality care or other benefits and services.

The Solution

State and local governments should send trained mental health professionals instead of police to 911 calls related to mental health and addiction crises. Crisis Assistance Helping Out in the Streets (CAHOOTS) is a long-standing program in Eugene, Oregon, that dispatches mobile teams of health care workers, rather than police, to respond to individuals experiencing mental health or substance use disorder crises. While such programs are implemented at the local level, the federal government can provide funding to help establish, expand and evaluate mobile crisis programs.

Take Action

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Support the CAHOOTS Act

Tell your members of Congress to cosponsor the CAHOOTS Act to enable appropriate crisis response that connects people to care, not jail.

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Support the 988 Implementation Act

Tell your members of Congress to cosponsor the 988 Implementation Act to ensure that people experiencing behavioral health crises receive an appropriate, helpful response and are connected to needed services.