Community Voices


When help hurts, and why, and what to try instead.

“I was happy three days ago. Today I’m depressed. What happened? Nothing. An inner crutch slipped. Some poorly suppressed memory rose to the surface.” — Mihail Sebastian, from ‘For Two Thousand Years’

When help hurts, and why, and what to try instead. Q: What’s the worst thing you can do for someone having a mental health crisis? A: Call 911. As contradictory as it sounds, it’s the hard truth. Calls to 911 invariably (or inevitably) get referred to law enforcement. If you’re embroiled in a mental crisis, seeing/hearing things that aren’t there, overwhelmed by emotions you can’t master, the last thing you want is officers in blue approaching with flashlights in your face and weapons ranging from Tasers to semi-autos at the ready.

Relevant stats and facts: according to the ACLU, studies show that nearly 50% of police victims are living with a disability, predominantly a mental health disability. The National Mental Health Action association, in a position statement, asserts that, “A law enforcement response to a mental health crisis is almost always stigmatizing for people with mental illnesses and should be avoided when possible.”

“The amount of crisis out there is always going to outpace the number of workers we have,” former crisis line director Jess Stohlmann-Rainey says in a recent article at “You’re doing this, and maybe you can see there’s 40 calls in the queue. If this feels really high risk, and you think you’re going to end up calling 911 anyway, maybe you’ll call it sooner so that you can pick up the phone for another one of these 40 something people [waiting on hold]. And that’s not an okay decision to have to make, right? It’s the decision that people make every day doing this work.”

Psychiatric survivor Ysabel Garcia puts the case even more forcefully: “It doesn’t make sense to send a police officer and EMTs to a person who holds all these marginalized identities.”

Garcia says. “It’s literally a death threat. Their so-called intention of ‘saving lives’ doesn’t match the impact of their policies.”

In the past year, I’ve heard many stories from homeless persons and shelter residents that echo my own: authorities being either indifferent to their mental health struggles or actively unhelpful, intrusive and obstructive. To put it bluntly, homeless people trust law enforcement and social workers about as much as African-Americans do, and with equal reason. Until and unless this distrust is addressed, there will continue to be a gulf between the homeless and those who wish to help them.

As a community we need to foster better relations between the homeless and law enforcement. Some good starts have been made in those areas, with the increased use of Crisis Assessment Teams ,a joint effort of OC law enforcement and OC social services (CAT) and the institution of the Program for Assertive Community Treatment (PACT) which helps keep people with mental disorders functioning and in their homes.

First: The first contact between the mentally ill/homeless and assistance should NOT be the police. Those blue uniforms, lights and sirens are huge triggers and can defeat any possibility of giving aid by exacerbating already traumatic situations. You also significantly increase the risk of a “suicide by cop” scenario.

Second: We should not expect the police to function as psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists. That’s not in their job description, and it is unfair to expect them to function as such when dealing with people with mental disorders.

That’s the best part of CATs: you have the psychiatric community working with law enforcement to peacefully resolve situations with troubled individuals. None of these measures are magic bullets. No one solution exists to help mentally troubled people.

The lesson of PACT is that everyone is an individual, and treatment approaches must be individualized. No one drug helps everyone with depression, or bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia. It takes time to find the right treatment modalities. The process can’t be rushed. Which is a problem with our society.

We want easy and quick answers. We’ve become so used to getting everything right away that any delay causes anxiety and complaints that, “Something must be done right now!” Carrie Fisher had it dead right when she wrote, in Postcards From The Edge, that “instant gratification takes too long.”

But we can’t let that attitude interfere with or defund social programs that are working. No matter how long they take. No matter the cost. Because the cost of a human life can’t be quantified.

He who saves a life, saves the whole world. He that takes a life, destroys it.

Better days are coming …if we work for them.