The crossroads where criminal justice and mental health intersect can be a dangerous place for people with mental illnesses. Nothing highlights this fact like living it. My youngest son, Garin, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder complicated by schizoaffective disorder in his early 20s, after being found in our bathtub holding a butcher knife to his own throat.
NAMI’s Journey of Hope program saved our sanity during this daunting, heartbreaking time for my husband and me. We left the program with communication, emotional, and psychological skills to support our own sanity and well-being.
The run up to Garin’s diagnosis was characterized by manic behavior that, even as a former psychotherapist, I thought was drug use. Garin was homeless and living on the streets when one summer night, my phone rang at 1 a.m., jolting me out of sleep. A kind voice on the other end of the line said, “My name is Sgt. Twana Chick. I don’t want to startle you by calling this late, but I just started my shift.” She went on to say she was part of a law enforcement task force that worked closely with people on the street who had mental illnesses. She had been observing Garin and had reason to believe he was suffering from a mood disorder. We arranged to meet the following afternoon with Garin, but he was not ready to get help. It took another few months before his illness inundated his psyche to the point of suicide that he finally asked for help. Thankfully, Garin spent several weeks in a psych hospital and came out on medication.
A diagnosis and a prescription aren’t enough for many people, and they weren’t for Garin. He soon encountered law enforcement again, and this time the experience bore out our greatest fear: harm done by an officer not trained to respond to people with mental illnesses. Garin had only been out of the hospital for a couple of weeks when he began thinking his car was threatening him and he took a metal chair to the vehicle. Neighbors heard the commotion and called the police, who arrived later while Garin was sleeping. The officers kicked the door in, startling him. He was beaten with batons so many times his arms were black with bruises.
It took me several days to find Garin in jail, severely psychotic and confused. He was charged with felony resisting arrest. I knew in that moment that more officers needed to be like Sgt. Chick, empathic and well trained for crisis encounters with people with mental illnesses. I’m a filmmaker, and although I had never created a training film, I promised Garin that I would give it a shot.
My first training film featured Sgt. Chick as well as several people living with mental illnesses who spoke out about the dire need for crisis intervention training for first responders. Today, almost all police officers in the state of Tennessee have received the two-hour training and seen the video. I just completed my second training film for NAMI Tennessee, to raise awareness and improve skills for staff in jails and prisons. I’m proud of the work inspired by Garin’s experiences, but I’m not done.
Dixie Gamble is a documentary filmmaker and the producer of two training films on mental health for criminal justice professionals: SAFE: Safe Aware First Responders Education and CODE: Correction Officer De-Escalation Education. She lives in Southern California.