File photo by Sam Hodgson
A crisis negotiator talks to a woman threatening suicide on a footbridge above Interstate 5 in October 2009. The woman came down voluntarily after more than eight hours.
Statement: “The fact of the matter is since 2008 we’ve seen an almost 53 percent increase in calls for service in the San Diego Police Department for persons in crisis,” Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long said at a Dec. 17 press conference.
Analysis: A devastating school shooting in Newtown, Conn., inspired a national conversation about gun-control laws and how to care for the mentally ill.
San Diego leaders and public safety officials explained how local residents can prevent a similar tragedy at a press conference a few days after the shooting.
Assistant San Diego Police Chief Boyd Long said that calls involving residents who are suicidal or may be struggling with a mental-health crisis have spiked in recent years. Such calls have gone up almost 53 percent since 2008, he said.
We decided to vet Long’s claim because it gives us a chance to learn more about how police handle such calls, and what San Diegans can do to help their friends and family members.
To check Long’s claim, we needed to define calls involving “persons in crisis.” At first glance, the term could conceivably apply to anyone who calls 911, but it actually has a much narrower meaning.
The assistant police chief said he cited data that included the following types of calls, which are tracked by 911 dispatchers:
• A person committing suicide
• A person threatening suicide
• A person who may be mentally ill is behaving erratically, or may be in crisis
• A person who may be mentally ill has become violent or appears likely to lash out
• Request for a Psychiatric Emergency Response Team
• Request for a Psychiatric Emergency Response Team to respond to the home of someone with a mental illness or crisis that doesn’t require immediate attention
Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams are composed of specially trained police officers and mental-health experts who respond to calls involving the above situations. The partnership is supported by PERT Inc., a nonprofit organization funded by San Diego County. (To learn more about the organization and the training it provides police, check out this story by former Voice of San Diego reporter Keegan Kyle.)
Jim Fix, PERT’s executive director, said about a dozen therapists and other licensed experts from the nonprofit are assigned to the San Diego Police Department and assist police in the field.
He said most law enforcement agencies in San Diego County have seen increases in calls involving suicidal or mentally disturbed people in recent years.
That includes the San Diego Police Department.
Long shared San Diego police statistics and this chart, which compares the number of calls by month from 2008 through 2012:
|Courtesy San Diego Police Department|
It’s clear there was an increase in calls but we aimed to determine whether it amounted to a nearly 53 percent spike in the past four years.
Police released a breakdown of calls that shows PERT teams have increased the time they spend with San Diegans who may need care but aren’t in an urgent crisis. In 2008, police recorded only one visit but officers made 30 last year.
Jeff Jordon, vice president of the San Diego Police Officers Association, said police supervisors encourage officers to refer troubled victims or suspects to PERT to lessen the likelihood of future calls to police.
It’s an easy way for officers to ensure they get help before the situation worsens, he said.
Those calls or requests don’t constitute crisis situations so we eliminated them from our count.
Dispatchers recorded 8,987 calls involving the situations we outlined above, minus the proactive visits, in 2008. That number spiked to 13,746 in 2012, resulting in a 53 percent increase.
The numbers back up Long’s claim.
Long believes a still-unstable economy may be behind the increase in calls.
California and other states across the nation have reduced mental-health funding and resources to balance their budgets in recent years.
From 2009 to 2012, California has reduced mental health funding by $765 million, more than a fifth of its mental health budget, according to a report by the nonprofit National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, which advocates for services and treatment. As funds and services have disappeared, the number of people with mental illness landing behind bars has surged.
State prison inmates with mental illnesses increased from 19 percent in 2007 to 25 percent in 2012, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Still, Long and Fix emphasized that San Diegans can help.
“The person that’s in the crisis generally has someone who’s keeping an eye on them,” Long said. “I would challenge that friend, relative or loved one to work with that person before they elicit a crisis situation. Try and get that person help before it becomes a catastrophic failure. That’s generally when we are called, when it’s a catastrophic failure.”
Fix said friends and family members should intervene when they notice their loved one seems withdrawn, reckless or acts more angry or anxious than usual. Increased substance abuse and comments about death are also warning signs, he said.
Here are a few numbers San Diego County residents can call for help:
• 24-hour OptumHealth Access and Crisis Line: 888-724-7240
• National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
• National Alliance on Mental Illness Information Helpline: 1-800-950-6264
The National Alliance on Mental Illness also has a San Diego chapter with additional contacts.
If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.
Lisa Halverstadt is a reporter at Voice of San Diego. Know of something she should check out? You can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0528.
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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.
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