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Montana CIT academy teaches participants how to navigate a mental health crisis

by TAYLOR INMAN
Daily Inter Lake | May 27, 2022 12:00 AM

A man’s screams echo throughout the jail; he appears to be struggling with some kind of mental illness. He points to people around him, repeating: “You took them! You took them!”

Hunkered down in a corner of the room, he’s crying and rocking back and forth. There’s another inmate next to him, egging him on.

Two officers enter the scene. They stand at a distance from the man suffering a panic attack. As they enter, he lashes out at them, saying he doesn’t trust one of the officers. The officer serving as the source of his unease backs away, turning his attention toward the other inmate, who is hurling insults from across the room.

The remaining lawman speaks softly and confidently, promising to get the man a phone call with his family. “Do you have a schizophrenia diagnosis?” he asks. The man’s demeanor changes and he calms down. He does have schizophrenia and he now believes this officer might be able to help him.

"OK that's a wrap!"

The cell fades from imagination and a hotel room appears in its place. A Montana Crisis Intervention Training coordinator tells everyone in the room the scenario training is over.

This was a situation that was acted out by volunteers and CIT coordinators during a CIT Academy that took place at the Hilton Garden Inn in Kalispell earlier this month. The volunteer actors are given a character and scenario. Participants go through a week-long training before a final day of rotating scenarios just like this one, where in real time and “real” chaos, they have to make decisions that de-escalate the situation.

CIT Lead Law Enforcement Coordinator for Flathead County Paula Sullivan says officers already respond to these types of situations, but the training gives them more ways to approach future confrontations.

“This builds more tools for officers, for first responders, for mental health professionals, for people dealing with someone who are going through a mental health crisis — this is a good way towards de-escalating that person, hopefully in the least intrusive way possible, and be able to talk them through that crisis,” Sullivan said.

CIT is an international organization with local programs all over the United States. On CIT’s website, their mission statement includes “developing the most compassionate and effective crisis response system that is the least intrusive in a person's life,” and “helping persons with mental disorders and/or addictions access medical treatment rather than place them in the criminal justice system due to illness related behaviors.”

The program partners with mental health professionals and offers the training to anyone who might encounter these situations in their line of work. Sullivan says Sarah Winfrey is the county’s mental health coordinator. A co-responding crisis therapist, Winfrey is dispatched on 911 calls with law enforcement throughout the valley.

According to an Information Referendum from the City of Kalispell in January, Winfrey responded to 668 calls with law enforcement in 2021, with 412 of those calls co-responding with the Kalispell Police specifically.

CIT Montana has multiple training academies throughout the state that involve coordinators from many different counties.

“We try to go help each other out,” Sullivan said. “There were multiple coordinators at our academy, including folks from Missoula, Helena and Libby here helping us. I try to go out and try to help other communities as well, that’s what we like as CIT Montana, that’s how they run so smoothly.”

She said the program has received a lot of support from county sheriffs, police chiefs and other law enforcement leaders in the state.

“I think everyone gets a lot out of it, even people who are able to come and watch the scenarios — they come and learn a little bit about it,” Sullivan said. “I think that it’s a good program and we’re happy to do it, and we’ve been supported in doing it so I think that’s really been helpful in making it work.”

Sullivan said CIT Montana is holding a second training academy in Flathead County in October. She said they are squeezing in this additional training session because they had to cancel some academies due to Covid-19 precautions.

There is a limited number of spots available for every training academy and they are focused on first responders, mental health professionals and law enforcement. Anyone interested in learning more can reach Sullivan at psullivan@flathead.mt.gov.

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