Most say police shouldn't be primary responders for mental health crises: NAMI poll

A wide majority of Americans say mental health professionals, rather than law enforcement, should be the primary first responders to mental health crises, a poll released Monday found. 

The poll, conducted by Ipsos on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), found broad support for police, with 72 percent of respondents having a favorable view of law enforcement. Still, nearly 80 percent of respondents said mental health professionals, not police, should respond to mental health and suicide situations. 

With millions of mental health crises reported through 911 annually, the responsibility to respond often falls to police. 

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The Washington Post reported that a quarter of people shot and killed by law enforcement between 2015 and 2020 had a mental illness. Of those with mental illness shot and killed, a third were people of color.

More than 60 percent of participants in the NAMI poll said they’d be afraid law enforcement would hurt a loved one when responding to a mental health crisis. Nearly half said they would not feel safe calling 911 for a loved one experiencing a mental health crisis.

People of color and those diagnosed with a mental health condition were more likely to report being afraid or not feeling safe with law enforcement responding to a loved one’s crisis. 

NAMI CEO Daniel Gillison Jr. said “lives will be saved” if the country shifts to prioritize professional response to these crises. 

“This survey shows that we have an opportunity — and broad desire — to provide better mental health crisis care and reduce our dependence on law enforcement to respond to mental health crises,” he said in a statement. 

The poll results come as the July deadline approaches for phone service providers to direct calls to 988 to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The Federal Communications Commission voted to establish the three-digit crisis line last year. Americans seeking help before July 16 should call 1-800-273-TALK.

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Hannah Wesolowski, NAMI’s interim director of government relations, told The Hill that the development of the 988 crisis line presents an “unprecedented opportunity” to improve access to mental health services in emergencies.

“It's really on all of us, the public policy makers, to act to make sure that when somebody calls for help, there's actually care available on the other end of the line, and we're not just providing an easier number to access a law enforcement response," she said.

“This isn't law enforcement's fault,” she added. “It's not the position that they signed up for, and we should not be putting our law enforcement professionals in the position of having to respond to a person in crisis.”

Ninety percent of respondents said they backed the development of 24/7 mental health, alcohol/drug and suicide crisis call centers. Additionally, 85 percent and 84 percent support state and federal funding, respectively, for 988 call centers and response services.

“If we don't do that, we're continuing to provide a law enforcement response and people will cycle in and out of jails, emergency rooms, homelessness or worse,” Wesolowski said.

Almost three-quarters said they would pay a monthly fee on phone bills to back the 988 system just like for the 911 system.

NAMI’s poll comes as it launches its week of action focused on revamping the national response to mental health crises and requesting investment in a suicide prevention and mental health crisis systems.

Overall, 75 percent said they are not content with how mental health treatment is dealt with in the country, with 54 percent of the respondents saying there’s “significant room for improvement” in responding to mental health crises – compared to 26 percent who say the same for other medical emergency responses.

Ipsos conducted the NAMI poll of 2,049 adults between Oct. 22 and 25. The margin of error amounted to 2.3 percentage points.