CIT program fights stigmas, offers hope

Retired Maj. Sam Cochran (right) awards Bonner County Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Scholten with a 2011 Crisis Intervention Team Officer of the Year award. (Photo by KEITH KINNAIRD)

PONDERAY — Bonner County sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Scholten admits that it can be difficult to get excited about the prospect of lengthy on-the-job training programs.

But Scholten was pleasantly surprised by the comprehensive National Alliance on Mental Illness Crisis Intervention Team training he underwent last year.

“By far the best week-long mandatory training that I’ve ever had to attend,” said Scholten.

The CIT program arms the community with knowledge and techniques for dealing with people in a mental health crisis that emphasizes safety, understanding and dignity. It also helps to steer those in crisis toward appropriate resources and away from jails under appropriate circumstances.

About a week after Scholten went through the training, he would put the knowledge and skills he picked up in CIT training to use in the field.

“It was just a full psychotic episode,” Scholten recalls.

The person had stopped taking their medications and was being very physical. But in between the fits of combativeness and yelling, Scholten managed to establish line of meaningful communication that helped de-escalate the situation.

“I told the person that I recognized that they were having an episode. I asked them if they were aware of it. And the person was able to shake their head and say, ‘I know.’”

Scholten’s compassion during and after the incident prompted one of the person’s family members to nominate him for CIT officer of the year for 2011.

Scholten was honored during a NAMI Region 1 CIT banquet at the Ponderay Events Center on Feb. 8.

Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler was also honored for his support and involvement in CIT programs.

Law officers are increasing finding themselves on the front lines of mental health crises as governments roll back health and welfare funding. CIT training emerged in the 1980s to help law enforcement safely deal with mentally unstable subjects and bring an end to fatal encounters with those who may be armed with a weapon.

“There had to be a better way,” said CIT coordinator and Bonners Ferry Police Sgt. Foster Mayo, who recounted a number of fatal clashes with armed individuals in other cities he’s worked in.

Mental health advocates in the Panhandle are seeking a $1.5 million federal grant to establish a mental hold facility in Kootenai County to keep the mentally ill from winding up in jails simply because there’s no place else to billet them.

“It is a real issue in the five northern counties,” said Claudia Miewald, director of the Kootenai Behavioral Health Center. “We do not have enough psych beds in our region.”

Mental health consumers are sometimes diverted to Lewiston, which pulls them away from familial support networks.

Miewald said she expects to learn if the grant will be awarded this spring and said the effort will continue even if federal funding does not come through.

“This is the closest we’ve been to having this type of center,” Miewald said.

Retired Maj. Sam Cochran of the Memphis Police Department, regarded as one of the pioneers in CIT training, stressed the importance of communities embracing such programs to counteract stigmas surrounding mental health issues and give families a measure of comfort.

“CIT is really a way of hope for many,” said Cochran.

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