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A Change in Perspective: A First Responder on Experiencing Mental Illness

Bryan Sanderson, a former firefighter and paramedic with 20 years of experience as a first responder, recently sat down with NAMI to share his perspective. In 2001, Bryan appeared on The View with Barbara Walters as one of the funniest firefighters in America. In 2004, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and later incarcerated for crimes committed during psychosis. Bryan has spoken to hundreds of first responders through CIT classes, sharing his unique personal insights on the importance of understanding mental illness. He is a member of NAMI Williamsburg (Va.). See him tell his story at the CIT International Conference this August 20-22 in Las Vegas.

1.    Can you say a little bit about your background as an emergency responder?

I was a firefighter for 20 years in the Hampton Roads (Va.) area. For the first 14, I was a volunteer; during the last seven years, I was a paid firefighter and paramedic.

2.    What’s your personal experience with mental illness?

I was diagnosed with depression in 2004 at age 38. My condition worsened and at 39 my diagnosis was changed to bipolar type 1 with psychotic features. I stopped taking my medication due to undesirable side effects. Shortly after I turned 40 I slipped into a severe psychosis. During that time I committed a misdemeanor and four class one felonies (bank robberies). I was incarcerated for approximately 14 months. While incarcerated, I became more and more violent towards deputies due to the confusion of psychosis. Jail staff did not have the proper training to handle someone experiencing psychosis. During my stay in jail I was severely beaten by correctional staff as retaliation for my psychotic behavior. I was later found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity (NGRI) and transferred and confined to Central State Mental Hospital for a period of 7 months. During this time, I lost everything. I walked out of the mental hospital and everything I owned fit in a duffel bag.

3.    How are you doing today?

Thank God I am fine. I take medication daily and I have fully recovered. I feel like I have never suffered from mental illness.

4.    How did you become involved in the CIT program?

In January 2008, I joined NAMI. I took the In Our Own Voice (IOOV) training and began to tell my story. I was invited to do an IOOV presentation at the Hampton/Newport News Community Service Board (HNNCSB), which is one of Virginia’s regional CIT training sites.

The more I shared my story with law enforcement, the more I realized that the knowledge I had could potentially help 911 calls go more smoothly. Later I was able to expand on my experiences in a way that helped first responders understand what it’s like to experience hearing voices and seeing people that are not there from a first person perspective. Some of my insights helped officers to identify signs that may jeopardize officer safety. Safety is law enforcement’s first priority: just like firefighters, at the end of the shift everyone wants to go home.

Dean Barker, with the HNNCSB, was also the co-chair of the Virginia CIT Coalition and he allowed me to complete the 40 hour CIT training program. Other jurisdictions including Virginia Beach and Chesapeake Police and Sheriff’s Departments invited me to help with their CIT programs. Later the Virginia Beach Police Department invited me to attend the train-the-trainer program. I have helped the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice with CIT and along with NAMI Williamsburg we produced a DVD to promote CIT in our community. NAMI Williamsburg believes this DVD can be used in any community in the country to help promote CIT.

5.    Why do you think CIT is important?

CIT has so many positives. I believe that CIT greatly reduces the chances of violent outcomes to 911 calls involving a person experiencing a mental health crisis. During CIT training, first responders get the perspective of what it’s like to live and navigate through day to day activities while suffering from psychosis with an exercise called “Hearing Voices.” With better coordination of mental health services, law enforcement officers can transfer custody more quickly, so they can get back on the street where they want to be. They can be more effective in our communities.

CIT also reduces the load in our local jails by transporting persons living with mental illness to treatment. This turns a potential inmate into a patient that can receive treatment they need that may not be available while incarcerated.

Everyone benefits when there are fewer physical confrontations between law enforcement and consumers and fewer injuries to both parties. Virginia Beach and Chesapeake Jails have reported that injuries to inmates that live with mental illness, injuries to officers and workman’s compensation claims have dropped by 50 to 85 percent since CIT was implemented.

6.    What role do you think individuals living with mental illness should play in the CIT program?

Consumers can provide valuable insight into their illness. They can help first responders understand the stress they encounter during psychosis and what scares them the most. Educating first responders about the fear and anxiety that consumers have and live with daily can be extremely helpful for officers. Officers need to know that those symptoms can be amplified with the presence of anyone who consumers perceive to be a threat—such as a police officer. Ultimately, consumers have the ability to share their story and perspective with first responders and hopefully first responders will use that information to help other consumers in the future.

7.    How can CIT programs reach out to individuals living with mental illness and include them meaningfully in CIT?

NAMI In Our Own Voice (IOOV) program is very helpful. CIT coordinators can contact the local NAMI Affiliate to schedule a presentation by an IOOV speaker that has been trained to educate people by telling their personal story.

8.    What’s the most important thing that police and other first responders should know about mental illness?

As a former first responder, in my mind, it was always supposed to be someone else. I never thought I would be affected personally by mental illness. Try to remember to be patient with all consumers; they are moms and dads, brothers and sisters. They have families that love them just like you love your family. It’s possible that first responders may never see the individual that they encounter on calls at their best. They, like me, may act completely contrary to how they were raised.

Also, a little compassion goes a long way when you are trying to gain trust from consumers. Many have forgotten to eat for one reason or another. Something as simple as having a bottle of water and peanut butter crackers handy may help make them feel like you care and help resolved the situation smoothly.

Personally I would like to thank everyone in the law enforcement and public safety community for their dedication and commitment to CIT. You are making a huge difference in the lives of so many people that desperately need your help.

Learn more about NAMI’s In Our Own Voice program or find your local NAMI Affiliate online. You can contact Bryan via email at