Measures taken to support mental health locally
Steps are being taken to change the approach to helping people in mental health crisis and getting them the care they need.
FORT SMITH, Ark. – A crisis is defined as a period of intense difficulty, turmoil or danger.
Frequently, local law enforcement encounters someone going through some kind of crisis. In recent years, more has been learned about mental health and what a mental health crisis looks like. However, there are still misconceptions that therapists, like Meagan Beerman with Emerging Hope Therapy, are working through.
“There’s so much stigma and labels around mental health that I think often times that’s what keeps people from reaching out and asking for help,” Beerman says.
Locally, these stigmas have had a significant impact on the number of adults with mental illness and the care they can access.
To put this into context, Arkansas has about 457,000 adults reporting any form of mental illness, or about 20% of the adult population. This figure is slightly higher than the 19% of adults in the United States with any form of mental illness.
Although on the surface, it appears Arkansas is in line with the rest of the country, where the state has a stark difference when it comes to looking at year-over-year trends for Arkansans adults with mental illness and their access to care.
As of 2017, Arkansas ranks in the bottom half of the nation in both categories.
It was in 2017 that Arkansas lawmakers signed Act 423 into law, with the aim of reversing these trends.
Joey Potts, director of the Five West Crisis Stabilization Unit, said one of the main purposes of Bill 423 was to “decrease the number of mentally ill clients who end up in jail, not necessarily because they are criminals, but because their behavior has created a situation where there is nowhere to take them.
In accordance with Law 423, the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy, or ALETA, has worked hard to increase training and accessibility to train law enforcement across the state to comply with the law.
ALETA set up a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training following the “Memphis Model” and encourages at least 20% of all law enforcement personnel to have completed at least 40 hours of CIT training.
“This course involves mental health professionals and law enforcement instruction to help guide officers through the process of meeting and working with someone going through a mental health crisis,” Charles explained. Ellis, a retired ALETA trainer.
The course is designed for officers to learn what a mental health crisis might look like in its various forms and ways to help assess and interact with someone going through such a crisis. Officers are encouraged to ask questions and hear from mental health professionals, watch videos of real-life situations that went right or wrong, and determine what officers did in the situation for the outcome that unfolded. is produced, and to work collaboratively to come up with scenarios and work as a team to solve them.
Tactics that many agents take away from CIT training include de-escalation, body language, proxemics, effective communication, and patience. Ultimately, the goal is to ensure the safety of the individual and officers in a given situation. CIT training is a key tool that Arkansas law enforcement can use on a daily basis.
The Fort Smith Police Department became the first department in the state to establish a Crisis Response Unit as a result of Bill 423. This team of officers have completed the necessary ALETA CIT training and are specialized in managing mental health crises.
“Much of our department is trained in reconnaissance and crisis response training and de-escalation of such situations,” Fort Smith Police Lt. Steven Creek said. “Our crisis response unit is expert in this area,” Creek continued.
Beyond classroom training, Lt. Creek and his team have recently begun training officers in real-life situations through virtual reality security. The new technology and system fully immerses officers in simulated programs designed to test critical thinking skills for de-escalation without risking officer or individual safety.
Fort Smith Police Capt. Wes Milam says he is grateful to have “a board that recognizes the need to properly address the mental health crisis in the city and is able to give us funds to purchase equipment to allow us to better respond to these needs and to better train our agents for these needs.
The city of Fort Smith has become the epicenter of the positive results of Bill 423. In addition to having the first crisis response team and becoming the second state department to use virtual reality training, Fort Smith is home to the first Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) in the state.
The Five West Crisis Stabilization Unit opened on March 1, 2018 and helps serve the citizens of Sebastian, Crawford, Franklin, Logan, Polk, and Scott counties. The unit also became the model for the three other CSUs that opened across the state in Washington, Pulaski, and Craighead counties. Their locations can be found here.
Arkansas’ four CSUs have become vital resources for people in mental health crisis. Kathryn Griffin, Justice Reinvestment Coordinator for the Governor’s Office, told 5NEWS in an email that since the Five West Crisis Stabilization Unit opened, more than 7,200 people have been served. or admitted to one of four CSU locations across the state. Additionally, more than 2,400 people were turned away by law enforcement from prisons or emergency services, putting into practice one of the key elements of Law 423.
Experiencing a mental health crisis is not a crime. When law enforcement encounters an individual in the midst of a crisis, the best thing to do is to safely de-escalate the situation and determine the best course of care. Arkansas’ four CSUs are another tool agents can use to offer a solution to a problem. These centers are completely voluntary and open to the public, not just people who are in the midst of a mental health crisis and have come into contact with law enforcement.
Potts says, “When you give someone a choice, they’re already committing to their own recovery.” Potts continued, “So we always celebrate that when they get here, you’ve already made a great choice.”