A man with schizophrenia barricaded himself inside his apartment after breaking into a neighbor’s house. Instead of breaking down his door, responding officers instead used their new mental health training to deescalate the crisis.

Within an hour, the situation was safely defused and the man was taken not to jail, but to the hospital for evaluation.

Thanks to a training program called Mental Health First Aid, Warwick, Rhode Island officers and many more across the nation are responding to these potentially tragic encounters with a new understanding and approach.

More first responders and law enforcement officials will get this valuable training if Congress passes the Mental Health First Aid Act. Sponsored by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.) and Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), the bipartisan legislation, being voted on by the Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, will award grants to train individuals to accomplish safe de-escalation of crisis situations, recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and encourage timely referral to mental health services.

Police have become the nation’s de facto first responders to mental health crises. Approximately one in 10 police calls involve a person with mental illness, and people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians approached or stopped by law enforcement, according to a study released last year by the Treatment Advocacy Center.

The eight-hour Mental Health First Aid training gives officers – whether riding in a squad cars or operating a dispatch center – tools to help deescalate incidents and avoid tragic outcomes. Officers learn how to assess a situation, intervene properly and help someone find appropriate care.

And it is making a difference in police departments around the country.

After a number of highly-publicized incidents in Rhode Island ended tragically when officers used deadly force on suspects with mental illnesses, the state began offering Mental Health First Aid training to its police officers in 2008.

“The training has helped [our] officers better understand people with mental illnesses so they can respond without compromising their safety,” says Lt. Joseph Coffey, who initiated the police training in Warwick. “The training has not only helped police officers better identify the signs of mental illness, but it improved their knowledge and understanding of mental illnesses.”

The Mental Health First Aid training has made a staggering difference in Albuquerque.

“Residents [in our town] more often saw police as people who would shoot and kill rather than serve and protect,” noted a police lieutenant in Albuquerque. New Mexico started training officers after the U.S. Department of Justice found an unacceptably high number of officer-involved shootings – particularly of people in mental health crises.

In 2013, 50 percent of police-involved shootings in Albuquerque involved people with indications of mental health issues.

So far in 2016, the number that has been reported is one.

The innovative program is also being credited with changing how law enforcement perceives and interacts with people with behavioral health issues. “It is no longer acceptable to only have reactive plans to crisis situations,’ said Ret. Sergeant Jim Kirk of the Tucson, Arizona, police department. “Mental Health First Aid … helps officers see that although a crime may have been perpetrated, the motivation behind the act may be due to a behavioral issue; therefore, we are responsible to seek long term solutions for all involved.”

According to a moving report by CNN, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has taken that to heart, training every staff member in the system – more than 16,000 people – in Mental Health First Aid. In addition to affecting day-to-day interactions in the state’s prisons, the program has led to changes in prison policy and culture. Inmates with mental illnesses can no longer be placed in solitary confinement, where in 2013, 206 of 288 documented suicide attempts took place.

From our prisons and jails, to our police and fire departments Mental Health First Aid is a powerful tool to help law enforcement avert tragedy. Let’s be sure they have the skills to use it.

According to Captain Francis Healy in Philadelphia, “Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety prepares [officers] to respond to crisis, to realize that their job is law enforcement, but also to help people who are in crisis.

Linda Rosenberg is President and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health

Linda Rosenberg, The Hill, September 21, 2016

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