National Alliance on Mental Illness
page printed from
(800) 950-NAMI;

CIT and Veterans: A Natural Partnership

Contributor: Laura Usher

In 2007, the Lake Charles (LA) Police Department’s SWAT and hostage negotiation teams responded to a call about a hostage situation. The suspect was armed and barricaded in an apartment holding his girlfriend hostage. He was also a veteran who had recently returned from Iraq. Ultimately, the incident resolved safely and officers were able to help the veteran get services at the hospital.

The officers, however, were concerned that they needed to know more about how to respond to a veteran in crisis, and this incident spurred Lt. David Anders, the coordinator of the Lake Charles Police Department’s crisis intervention team (CIT), to action. Lt. Anders reached out to the VA Medical Center in Alexandria, LA, 100 miles from Lake Charles, for assistance in improving the department’s response to veterans with mental illnesses. Dr. Pollard at the Alexandria VA worked with Lt. Anders to develop an in-service training for Lake Charles' CIT officers.  

The initiative of the CIT team in Lake Charles is certainly extraordinary. CIT teams around the country are becoming increasingly aware of the needs of returning veterans with mental health concerns, and are searching for ways to improve their service to those who have served our country. 

This year’s CIT Special Networking Session featured Lt. Anders and officials from the Veteran’s Administration in a discussion of partnerships between CIT programs and the VA to better serve veterans with mental illnesses who are at risk of involvement with the criminal justice system.

A theme repeated by all three speakers was that building partnerships between the VA, CIT programs, and NAMI leads not just to better training, but to a better understanding of the challenges and resources in individual communities, and better coordination of services. These partnerships allow for training of law enforcement, education of VA officials, and an opportunity for veterans to engage in a dialogue with law enforcement. In addition, the programs benefited from the special insights of law enforcement officers who were also returning veterans.   

In addition to Lt. Anders, attendees heard from Dr. Ira Katz, MD, PhD. As Deputy Chief Patient Care Services Officer for Mental Health, Dr. Ira Katz is the VA Central Office official in charge of mental health services in VA Medical Centers and Clinics. Dr. Katz discussed the high rates of mental health problems and traumatic brain injuries among veterans. He discussed some of the common problems that veterans face as they re-adjust to civilian life, such as following civilian driving rules and being armed and overly-aggressive in inappropriate situations. 

Dr. Katz also announced that the Department of Veterans Affairs has recently issued a memo requiring VA medical centers and Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) to increase outreach to justice-involved veterans, and to ensure that VA police have specialized training in responding to mental health concerns. The memo also requires VA medical centers and VISNs to reach out to community-based programs that serve justice-involved individuals (such as CIT programs and specialty courts). In communities where such programs don’t exist, VA medical centers and VISNs are charged with helping to build relationships with partners in the criminal justice system.

Dr. Katz invited NAMI members and other attendees to assist in holding VA medical centers to these new requirements. His message was that, while VA officials in Washington can fashion good policy, the real change happens at the local level – and the more that VA hospitals hear from local advocates, the better these collaborations will be.

Finally, the audience heard from Dr. Thomas Kirchberg, PhD, the Chief Psychologist at the VA Medical Center in Memphis, TN. Lead by Dr. Kirchberg, the Memphis VA Medical Center has collaborated for a number of years with the Memphis Police Department to better serve veterans with mental health problems in Memphis.

Dr. Kirchberg explained how the mission of the VA, "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan," was devised by President Lincoln. Lincoln had a long history of depression, and was deeply moved by both his own military service, as well as the sacrifices of those who served during the Civil War. 

Dr. Kirchberg also discussed the collaboration between the Memphis VA Medical Center and the Memphis CIT program. Medical Center psychologists provide consultation to the CIT team, and serve as instructors for the CIT training. They have developed an advanced training for CIT officers to gain a more in-depth understanding of veteran’s mental health, including training on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injuries, and facilitated meetings between police officers and combat veterans. In exchange, many Memphis VA Medical Center police are trained in CIT, and Medical Center psychologists participate in ride-alongs with CIT officers.

Dr. Kirchberg reported that the program has been well received, especially by veterans, who welcome the opportunity to work closely with law enforcement and to tell their stories. Some veterans have reported that CIT officers saved their lives. This sentiment is echoed by Lt. Anders, who heard from an officer, who was also a veteran. The officer said that going through the in-service training helped him come to terms with his combat service, and provided him practical information about the kinds of services available through the VA mental health service.

Learn More

Copies of PowerPoint presentations from all the speakers can be found on the NAMI website (look for the CIT Special Networking Session on Tuesday July 7).

Communities that are working to incorporate veterans issues into CIT programs, especially those that are working with their local VA hospitals, are invited to contact Laura Usher at NAMI National.  We would like to hear about your program!