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What I’ve Learned from CIT

By Laura Usher, NAMI CIT Program Manager

When I started working at NAMI seven years ago I had never heard of crisis intervention teams (CIT). A year later, I was the new NAMI CIT Coordinator and traveling to my first CIT Conference. I had just the basic understanding that CIT was a training program for police officers to improve the way they respond to people in crisis. I knew that far too many people wound up in jail after a mental health crisis, and that CIT was supposed to prevent this, but I wasn’t sure how it all worked.

Arriving at the conference, I was terrified. Hundreds of police officers crowded into the convention center and I couldn’t imagine what I could possibly say to them or the many dedicated advocates in their midst. I learned quickly that it wasn’t my job to pretend to know anything.  I could learn everything I needed to know by listening—to the thousands of NAMI advocates, officers, mental health providers, individuals and families making CIT happen in their local communities.   Here is what they taught me:

  • CIT is not a police training program. It is a challenging, but powerful, process for creating partnerships between local advocates, law enforcement agencies and mental health provider agencies. These hard-won partnerships make it possible to change the way that communities respond to mental health crisis. Without them, police training is a Band-Aid that makes very little difference in the long run.  I believe that in mental health–where  we struggle with confusing, disconnected and poorly funded systems—CIT is a model for local change that builds on something every community can develop: relationships.
  • Police are people, too. Many mental health advocates are intimidated by law enforcement officers, but the truth is they are ordinary people doing a very difficult job. Most are compassionate. Many like authority, but want to do good things with it. They have families and they care about their communities. Many officers have mental health conditions, but they usually don’t talk about them. They can have the same prejudices about mental illness that pervade the broader community, unless someone shows them otherwise.
  • CIT officers are the best of the best. Every CIT officer I meet impresses me with her dedication, compassion and skills. If I have a question and email my CIT network, I get dozens of responses right away. At the 2013 NAMI Convention, two CIT officers held an “Ask the Cop” workshop. After the workshop, they answered questions in the hallway, then in the hotel café. Throughout the conference, I saw people pulling these professionals aside for advice, to tell their stories and get some perspective.
  • People can change and communities can change. Major Sam Cochran, coordinator of the first CIT program, always says CIT is about building compassion and changing the hearts of people in the community.  I’ve heard so many stories from CIT officers who say they were not interested in CIT, but their supervisor “volunteered” them for the training. After the training, they say that CIT helps them in their jobs every day, but it also helps them be better parents, better spouses and better members of the community.  On the other side, I’ve heard from families that have a lost a child during an encounter with police. They live with a depth of grief most people cannot imagine, but they work tirelessly and with open hearts alongside police to make sure that something like that never happens to another family.
  • There’s a reason we call NAMI members “advocates.” It was the persistence and dedication of members of NAMI Memphis that got the Memphis Police Department to partner on the first CIT program. Since then, NAMI Affiliates around the country have been instrumental in starting thousands of CIT programs, often despite the initial reluctance of others in the community.

It is hard to express how much I have learned (and continue to learn every day) from the CIT community.  Working for NAMI is so hard because we encounter people every day that can’t get the help they need or who have experienced discrimination or tragedy because of a mental illness. But every CIT officer, mental health provider, NAMI advocate and community member that puts their heart into CIT is bringing hope and compassion to their communities. I’m so grateful to be part of this movement.