The big take-away in August for Hays Police Chief Don Scheibler from the 2019 international conference on Crisis Intervention Treatment wasn’t from one of the many conference break-out sessions or even a keynote speaker.

Instead, it was what he learned from other Ellis County law enforcement and mental health professionals during conference downtime.

“Sitting in a restaurant in Seattle, Washington, and eating pizza and discussing how we can improve mental health services in Ellis County, that’s amazing,” Scheibler said. “To sit there and have those hour-long, two-hour-long, three-hour-long discussions … That was probably the most valuable thing for me.”

Attending the conference from Ellis County, besides Scheibler, were other Hays police officers, Ellis County sheriff’s deputies, therapists from High Plains Mental Health and judicial system officers, among others. All are members of the Ellis County Mental Health Council, which was formed in August 2018 to bring together Ellis County people most often called upon to respond to a mental health crisis.

Ellis County Deputy Sheriff Scott Braun, among those who attended, said the need for the training is important. He and Scheibler said it builds on other efforts both departments have been making to better address mental health calls.

“Statistically, mental health is almost a daily type of call for us anymore, that we deal with in some type of capacity,” Braun said during an interview on the CIT training in Seattle.

Managing crisis

CIT expands the resources for law enforcement officers to deal with the issues of people in crisis, said Ann Leiker, executive director of the Center for Life Experience in Hays and chair of the Hays chapter of the advocacy group National Association of Mental Illness.

“The number of mental health issues is climbing, the number of suicides in western Kansas is climbing, services in western Kansas are not being funded because of the declining population, they’re being more centralized, and people are becoming more isolated,” Leiker said. “Farmers right now are struggling, desperately. The mental health services are doing the best they can, but they are limited by their resources.”

As it is now, both locally and nationally, people in a mental illness crisis will often end up in jail with a criminal charge Braun said.

Almost 50% of the people in jail right now at the Ellis County Law Enforcement Center have some type of mental illness diagnosis, are receiving counseling, or are on medication for mental illness, he said.

“That’s not where they should be, they should be in some type of facility getting the help that they need,” Braun said.

But that’s getting harder and harder to accomplish, said Scheibler, noting a large part of the problem is a lack of mental health services, leaving law enforcement and mental health providers to bridge the gap however they can.

“They’ve eliminated funding across the state for mental health services,” Scheibler said. “We tend to criminalize mental illness.”

He’s seen the situation get worse in the nearly three decades he’s been a police officer.

“When I started in law enforcement in 1993, downtown Hays had an inpatient mental health facility,” Scheibler said. “If somebody was in crisis, I could drive them downtown, drop them off at a mental health treatment center. Today if somebody is in crisis, to get them in the state hospital is a challenge. Even if everybody thinks they need to go, sometimes finding bed space for them is almost impossible. That is unacceptable. If we treated cancer like we treat mental health, there’d be protests in the street.”

Crisis Intervention Treatment, or CIT as it’s called for short, is a national program with its roots in Nashville, Tenn., said Leiker.

Endorsed by the National Association for Mental Health, or NAMI, CIT is in its infancy in Ellis County, said Leiker.

The CIT curriculum and concept is under the direction of law enforcement, she said, although others who attended the Seattle training included High Plains Mental Health’s David Anderson, and Josh Tanguay, with Clinical Associates and NAMI Hays.

Integrating training

Interest in CIT training at the Hays Police Department emerged partly after two officer-involved shootings in 2016 within three months. Both were traffic stops and very similar, Scheibler said, with senior officers involved, who were ultimately cleared of wrongdoing. The department has embraced CIT, he said.

“We just wanted to make sure we’re doing the best job possible to respond and assist those people who are in crisis,” he said, adding “We can’t fix the funding issue, so we just have to prepare the frontline officers, so what can we do to reduce the crisis and help the officers?”

Mental-illness-related calls, such as suicide and welfare checks, are among the top 10 types of calls the department had in 2017, Scheibler said.

Funding for the CIT training in Seattle came from the Schmidt Foundation, Leiker said, in response to a NAMI Hays grant request.

“I am so grateful to the Schmidt Foundation for funding this, the ability to send Don Scheibler and his team to Seattle to spend a week together training and bringing this concept back and looking at how to implement it in our community,” she said.

The hope is that it will spread to not only law enforcement, but also other first responders, such as firefighters and emergency responders, who also come in frequent contact with people in a mental illness crisis.

“We all respond to these in the community,” said Brandon Hauptman, one of the Hays police officers leading CIT training of other officers. “So how can we better improve our services to these folks, get them better resources, better connect them with High Plains, how can we improve that?”

Scheibler, Anderson and Tanguay will talk Monday about CIT. Sponsored by NAMI Hays, the talk is from 6:15 to 8 p.m. and is hosted by the Center for Life Experience at its offices in the Hadley Center, 205 E. 7th, Suite 257.

The public is invited, Leiker said.

Childcare is available with a reservation. Call Ann Leiker at 785-259-6859.