Mental Health Training for 9-1-1 Operators, Yes!

911 phone operators
911 phone operators

The job of a 9-1-1 emergency operator is to dispatch first responders in the form of police, firemen, or ambulance. The job of a first responder is to immediately, incisively grasp the scene to which they're dispatched, and not to act rashly if there's confusion or ambiguity.

Those basic principles went tragically awry in the case last December of Quintonio LeGrier, a 19-year old African-American male on Chicago's west side. It is now known that LeGrier contacted emergency services at least three times seeking help for what he described as someone threatening his life. He requested an officer be sent to the home but his initial requests went unanswered; ignored even.

A later request from his father resulted in police on the scene and ultimately in Quintonio's untimely death, killed by Officer Robert Rialmo. He was shot six times total, four of those in the back. A neighbor, who was asked by the father to assist, was also killed in what has been described as an accident. Both Quintonio and his neighbor, Ms. Bettie Jones, were only seeking help from the officers.

In theory and practice mental health professionals advise family members to seek emergency help when they feel their life or that of their loved one is in imminent danger. As a former clinical therapist with experience treating adolescents managing mental health difficulties, I know that being unable to call for emergency help during these times is an injustice to our community.

A national poll conducted in August 2015 by Reuters shows that only 24 percent of African-Americans say they trust the police to be just and fair. However, young children are taught to trust police officers. Police officers are among the list of safe people to run to in times of danger. Unfortunately the murder of Quintonio LeGrier and an innocent bystander sends the message that calling for emergency help is steering clients into danger unbeknownst to them.

Consider this: The issue of families receiving the most appropriate assistance for their needs should not lie solely with them; especially if they have picked up the phone to call for help with the appropriate authorities. If you've ever been anywhere near a person experiencing mental health difficulties, you know they are not likely to think clearly. Respectively, their caregiver is coul d be equally unclear. This would suggest that the recipient of the call for help should be the clear thinker. They should offer some sense of support with helping the caller distinguish their need. This is clearly not what happened when Quintonio called for help.

The case for Quintonio LeGrier is being reviewed by the independent police review authority for police officer wrongdoing. And while the 9-1-1- dispatcher is under investigation, no true prior to hire or on the job training seems to take place for anything other than managing the equipment in the call center. They should be trained and prepared to handle mental health emergency phone calls. How ironic is it that a person who is receiving emergency calls and charged with dispatching first responders in only three forms, police, fire, or ambulance, can't help the caller figure out which first responder is needed at the scene?

It would be great if everyone who experiences mental health challenges had a mental health professional to turn to. In a perfect world our entire healthcare system would make that possible. In a perfect world there would be no barriers or stigma in seeking mental health services. This is not the case.

Although mental health affects everyone, African-Americans and Hispanic Americans utilize mental health services at about half the rate as White Americans. Oftentimes caregivers are unaware that a mental illness exists until a manic episode manifests. Even then, with youth in particular, the average amount of time between onset of symptoms and intervention is 10 years.

Caregivers assume when they call America's emergency telephone number since 1968 for whatever reason they will receive the emergency assistance needed. They may not completely understand the varying possibilities for response and they may not have the presence of mind to paint a full history of the situation. They should not have to. 9-1-1 emergency dispatchers have the responsibility of taking control of the conversation and obtaining details to pass on to the first responder(s). They are supposed to be trained to work under stress and ask vital questions of the callers. As such, first responders should always be aware of the situation and will take these things into full consideration when approaching the scene.

To be clear, I've never had a loved ones life taken as a result of dialing 9-1-1. In the space where we are more prone to point fingers and possibly blame caregivers for doing what they have always believed a safe thing to do, let's not now tell them to not call for help from those same first responders we, mental health professionals, advised them to seek. In the aftermath of yet another Black man killed at the hands of a police officer, let's make the system that we are paying to work on our behalf, save lives, protect and serve, actually work.