In 2004, my department asked me to take over the agency’s mental health training. I didn’t know much about mental health, so I went to many training programs and conferences, and got to know the mental health professionals in my community. One of the classes I went to was Family-to-Family, a course offered by NAMI Dallas for families of people with mental illness. It was there that I learned that my mother had anxiety and depression, and so did I.
Growing up, I knew my mother had behaviors I didn’t understand, but I didn’t know what caused them. She was frequently afraid. She worried that Dad would do something to hurt himself. When she got depressed, she stopped doing things that she wanted to do. She would just lie in bed.
As an adult, I would get in arguments with her and get very frustrated with her. I wanted to visit with her and to go out and do things with her, but I felt like everything had to be on her terms.
Family-to-Family was eye opening, a wonderful and personal learning experience for me. Learning about my mother’s illness didn’t frighten me, it made sense to me. I learned the important message; my mom is still my mother, the person that I dearly loved. The illness is also present, and it causes behaviors that used to upset me. I learned to set boundaries in my relationship with my mother. I learned not to argue with her. I can’t expect her to do what I want her to do nor can I fix her. The questions I concern myself with are: “Is she happy?” and “How do I help her be happy?” Did that realization change her illness? No, but it did address the issues in our relationship and the relationship blossomed.
I also came to understand what was happening with me, that I had anxiety and depression. Teaching others about these conditions, helped me see how they affect me. But I also learned how to deal with it, so I could be productive.
Family-to-Family taught me how important education is to families, especially with the crisis in mental health care and what’s being asked of law enforcement today. When I was at NAMI conferences, people would come up ask questions like: “When should I call the police?” and “When the officers show up, they don’t listen to me; how do I get them to hear that my family member needs help?” It became very apparent to me: family members are afraid. They desperately need and want help, but they don’t know what will happen if they call the police in an emergency situation that they don’t know how to handle.
These questions compelled me to started writing my NAMI “Ask the Cop” column. I wanted to help family members to understand what they could expect, and to know what they can and can’t control. Education is the key. Everyone knows they can do a better job when they are better educated — that’s why we train officers and why we teach families. We want to make things safer for everyone and avoid bad outcomes. It’s not the long-term solution, but we are working in that direction. The biggest single thing we can do to prevent these outcomes is to get the community together and figure out how we build a mental health system that adequately serves people.
Senior Corporal Herb Cotner is the Mental Health Liaison for the Dallas Police Department. He also is vice president of NAMI Dallas and co-author of NAMI’s popular Ask the Cop column, which educates families about how to work with police in a mental health crisis.