Aiken Public Safety officers recently responded to a medical office on University Parkway after an Alzheimer's patient became enraged and started knocking over testing equipment, and even tried to attack a staff member.
The man was restrained, and neither the staff member nor the clinic wished to press charges.
“It's not uncommon to run across someone with a mental illness,” said Detective Jeremy Hembree, a spokesman for Aiken Public Safety. “The good part is, we already have the training ... so we recognize what that is, so when it does happen, we're not caught off-guard by it.”
People with different mental illnesses respond to different stimuli in a variety of ways. One person may not like to be touched, while another may be frightened by someone raising their voice. Others may be suffering from hallucinations or “hearing voices.”
'We're here to help'
Part of a law enforcement officer's training focuses on mental illness, specifically how to recognize symptoms and how to respond when they encounter someone who may be mentally ill.
“(Training) covers how to recognize those and how to get the help needed to make the scene safe for everyone involved,” Hembree said, “but also how to get the resources so they can get help or help us get them help.”
Officers who respond to a call must first take the necessary steps to resolve the issue that prompted the call, keeping in mind not only their safety but the safety of those involved. In many cases dealing with someone who is mentally ill, officers almost take on the role of social workers and help the person get in touch with the appropriate resources they need.
“We're here to help, whether that's to provide law enforcement service, medical service, fire service or social worker service,” Hembree said.
“We don't consider ourselves social workers, but we know the process to get that person some help so that they're not just left behind. Ultimately, it's for the safety of everyone in the community, not only the person with the mental illness.”
Law enforcement has the authority to take someone into emergency protective custody, if they feel the person is a danger to their self or others and they refuse to seek treatment voluntarily, according to Hembree.
“If they're cooperating and answering questions, we'll ask them to go to a hospital voluntarily for an evaluation,” he said. Police try to arrange for EMS to transport the person if possible, but officers will also drive a person to the hospital if they are going voluntarily.
'Not enough service providers'
Cheryl Cummings, owner of Stairway Counseling Services in Aiken, said the primary mental health care service provider in Aiken County is the Aiken-Barnwell Mental Health Center. There are an additional 10 or so private providers.
“For those individuals who don't have insurance, they usually go through Aiken-Barnwell Mental Health or another organization or agency that has a sliding fee scale so they can pay little to none if they need services,” Cummings said.
Some people aren't able to recognize symptoms of mental illness in a loved one and end up calling police or paramedics to take them to the emergency room for an evaluation.
“If that person is in danger of harming themselves or in danger of harming others, that's your kicker right there,” Cummings said of choosing to seek treatment from an emergency department or a local provider.
In addition to Aiken Regional Medical Centers, Georgia Regents Medical Center and University Hospital also perform mental evaluations. Cummings said she'll refer someone to a hospital based on their location.
Cummings said local law enforcement work well with mental health care providers, and that it's important for police to be able to recognize mental illness so they can adjust their tactics accordingly.
She urged people to enroll in Smart911. The county-wide program rolled out in 2011 and automatically provides vital information about you and your household to emergency responders if you call 911, including any medical or mental ailments. Users can put home, work and cellphone numbers on the same profile, and if you call 911 from one of those numbers, your Smart911 profile is automatically pulled up in the dispatch center that takes your call, no matter where you are.
To find out more about the program, visit tinyurl.com/kuvlkax.
Cummings said police are helpful in getting people connected to the right resources, but those resources are limited.
“With the amount of mental illnesses and disorders, locally and statewide, there's still not enough service providers,” she said. “Since there's been this whole movement about mental health awareness, there's a lot more people going into the field to be licensed professional counselors and social workers. Federally, there's a lot more money being implemented into programs, such as mental health awareness and treatment.”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.