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The Secret to Rural CIT Success: Broad-based Community Support

By Maggie Smith, NAMI Information Assistant

Creating a CIT program in your community is a challenging undertaking. For those who live in rural areas the task might seem herculean in nature. With homes, law enforcement and emergency responders spread over great distances and less money and personnel to staff the services that are provided, it’s understandable that any single CIT advocate would feel overwhelmed by the project. However, individuals who have successfully started CIT programs in their rural communities tell a surprising story: It’s not as hard as you might think.

“I don’t think that CIT is an urban model,” says Carol Carothers, executive director of NAMI Maine. “Rural CIT is the same as urban CIT—form a team, promote the program, hold a training, follow-up with the team once the training has happened, go back and provide follow-up training a year later, keep your relationship going with the lead CIT officer, etc.”

As the champion of the statewide CIT program in Maine, Carothers doesn’t deny that beginning a CIT program is challenging. However, she doesn’t believe rural areas pose many significant challenges that more urban areas don’t pose as well. While she does admit that rural law enforcement may lack staff and money to pull officers for 40 hours, she doesn’t cite these as challenges that are particularly hard to overcome. Officer Jean Loveland with the Brigham City Police Department in Utah is the CIT regional coordinator for the Bear River Mental Health region and she expressed a similar sentiment.

“There aren’t many challenges that rural areas specifically face,” she explained. Like Carothers, she believes the only real challenge that is specific to working in a rural community is the need for more manpower to facilitate an individual living with mental health’s needs. The majority of the challenges she faces sound typical to any CIT program: challenges working with local mental health agencies, some initial resistance from other law enforcement officials, among others. However, as members of successful CIT programs, both women know these problems can be overcome in rural and urban areas alike if the entire community gets involved and a diverse base of support is created.  

“We started by forming a state-wide collaborative of psychiatrists, families, individuals, providers and criminal justice folks to speak out, develop a plan and put a diverse voice to the issue,” Carol explains. It’s easy to forget that CIT is not just law enforcement training that you can send your local officers to and then you check a box, ‘CIT done.’ In order for it to be successful, in any setting, rural or urban, a community partnership must be formed. As Carothers demonstrated when describing the partnership she helped formed in Maine, the more diverse your support the more likely your efforts will succeed. Loveland can attest to this fact as well. When asked what tips or strategies she can offer to those living in rural communities who are interested in starting their own CIT programs the first thing she recommended was reaching out to community organizations.

“It’s important to find a group like NAMI or a veterans association to help make it a whole community effort,” she said. In addition to community organizations, she stressed the need for support from the criminal justice fields, ideally a law enforcement ally who can help you sell the CIT program to other officers. “You can overcome initial law enforcement resistance by having officers who have completed the training talk with those who are skeptical,” she explained. As a law enforcement officer herself, Loveland has found that CIT training for officers can help in all kinds of difficult situations in which officers might find themselves. Similarly, Carothers believes it is particularly important for rural communities to reach out to all first responders such as EMTs, sheriff’s deputies, state police, game wardens and other first responders. By doing this, a community creates a cadre of first responders, which enables anyone who might be called to a psychiatric crisis to be trained and prepared for the situation at hand.

Rural communities may even have an advantage when it comes to starting CIT. Laura Usher, CIT program manager at the NAMI CIT Center, explains, “I hear from local advocates that in small, rural communities, people already know the key players because they are neighbors or friends. Small communities are tight-knit and used to accomplishing projects on a shoestring.”

Finally, the issue of funding within rural communities can be solved by creating an effective community partnership. Carothers believes CIT can be implemented with no money at all. “Trainers volunteer their time, free training sites are found, police officers are required to get certain training every year. If the police department and the team you form want the program they can do it without money,” Carothers claims. However, she goes on to say if funding does create a problem, create a budget and raise the money you need. The broader your community partnership the more funding options you will be able to pursue.

In the end, if CIT advocates living in rural areas have thought starting a CIT program in their communities would be too much of an uphill battle, the voices of these leaders may assuage those fears. While starting any CIT program is challenging, if a diverse community partnership is created rural communities can effectively overcome the roadblocks they may face along the way. To jump-start any partnership-building efforts, visit the NAMI CIT Advocacy Toolkit where helpful tools and information for getting a partnership off the ground can be found. Among these resources are the NAMI Community Partnership guide and numerous grant-writing tools. Additionally, the University of Memphis, where the first Crisis Intervention Team was introduced, offers CIT resources with an emphasis on the “Memphis Model.” Lastly, CIT International is a nonprofit organization dedicated to development and implementation of CIT programs worldwide. Armed with the knowledge that rural challenges can be overcome and the resources provided above, rural CIT advocates can move forward with confidence.