Story at a glance

  • New York City will dispatch a team of health professionals and mental health crisis workers in response to mental health emergencies.
  • Several cities have begun experimenting with alternative ways to respond to distress calls.
  • The pilot program includes two high-need communities to address the disproportionate impact on Black and homeless New Yorkers.

Most children are taught to call 911 in an emergency. But for Black Americans, calling 911 means taking your chances with police. Now, for two communities in New York, calling for help in a mental health crisis means treatment, not law enforcement.

“One in five New Yorkers struggle with a mental health condition. Now, more than ever, we must do everything we can to reach those people before crisis strikes,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a release. “For the first time in our city’s history, health responders will be the default responders for a person in crisis, making sure those struggling with mental illness receive the help they need.”  

After the police killing of George Floyd reignited conversations over police brutality against Black Americans, several cities began exploring alternative programs for responding to calls for help. Currently, those in physical and mental crisis will call 911, often triggering a police response, but lawmakers are in the process of establishing 988 as a crisis hotline


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“Mental illness is not a crime, but we call upon the police as first responders in a mental health crisis. Now, New York City is changing the outdated and dangerous use of police that too often has led to injury and even death," said Linda Rosenberg, a social worker and professor at Columbia University, in a statement. 

NYPD officers and FDNY Emergency Medical Services Emergency Medical Technicians respond to all mental health calls, but starting next February, the city will deploy a team of health professionals and crisis workers from FDNY alone. In situations involving a weapon or “imminent risk of harm,” the city said NYPD officers will respond alongside them, but emphasized that more than 65 percent of staff have been trained in Crisis Intervention Team training. The National Alliance on Mental Health and other advocates support such programs, pointing to results in Memphis, Tenn., where officer injuries during mental health crisis calls fell by 80 percent. 

The announcement has raised concerns among the city’s Fire Department personnel, however, who will be tasked with taking on additional responsibilities. 

"The de Blasio Administration is now asking our members, some barely paid above the minimum wage, to step into this even higher risk role, without physical protection," said Oren Barzilay, president of the FDNY EMS Local 2407 union, in a statement. "FDNY EMS members always put the health of our fellow New Yorkers ahead of our own, particularly during the current pandemic, which is significantly impacting our union workforce, many of whom have become sick or died as a result.”


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“For decades we have relied on a broken system to respond to our friends, family members, and loved ones experiencing crisis. As the killings of Miguel Richards, Daniel Prude, Walter Wallace Jr., and so many others demonstrate, these crises can become deadly when we rely on police as the only resource to intervene," said Tim Black, director of consulting at White Bird Clinic/CAHOOTS. 

Wallace Jr., 27, and Prude, 41, were both Black men killed by police this year after someone concerned for their well being called for help. Research shows that Black Americans, along with Hispanic Americans, are less likely to have access to and receive mental health care, despite facing similar (if underreported) rates of mental illness. 

Black added, "We should be asking ourselves why it is that law enforcement has become the default system to handle situations related to mental health, addiction, poverty, and homelessness, and what public safety should really mean for our most vulnerable neighbors." 

New York is the latest to commit to a change, although the pilot program’s success will decide whether this initiative will expand past the two selected communities. In the release, the mayor's office cited the example of Eugene, Ore., which has fully incorporated its CAHOOTS program into the city’s emergency response system.


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Published on Nov 11, 2020