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Training helps Liberty County officers better deal with people in crisis
Official VA Seal hres

Local law-enforcement officers received mental health awareness training this week.

The training focused on how officers can manage interactions with people who have mental disabilities as well as helping them recognize signs that someone has post-traumatic stress disorder or is suicidal.

Dr. Mark De Santis and Dr. Jamie McDonagh, psychologists at the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Charleston, South Carolina, spoke to the officers Monday and Tuesday about skills and strategies for dealing with people in crisis and de-escalating situations. De Santis talked about suicide prevention and McDonagh focused on other mental health issues, such as risk of violence and PTSD. The seminar took place at the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office.

The Charleston VA center is the headquarters of the Southeast region, which covers South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

During the session, De Santis discussed warning signs of distress, suicide statistics and how to talk to a person who is suicidal.

Suicide rates are increasing for men between the ages of 45 and 50, De Santis said, and more resources have been put into the Department of Veteran Affairs for suicide prevention. Suicide rates among veterans receiving care are decreasing, according to De Santis. He said the veterans’ crisis hotline has received more than 2 million calls since 2007 and that there have been 53,000 rescues by law enforcement.

McDonagh described “suicide by cop” as rare, but one of the most dangerous situations for law enforcement.

“Law enforcement is also at risk of suicide,” De Santis said, adding that officers are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than to be killed by a criminal.

McDonagh said people with serious mental illness are more likely to be victims of crime than to be perpetrators of violence.

“Early evidence seems to suggest, when people are physically assaulted three or more times, they are a little bit more likely to become violent themselves in the future,” he said. “When the officers who responds to this when there’s been a crime of victimization, and the officers can recognize mental illness … and they made relationships with different care facilities, they can take them to the hospital and be sensitive. When people with serious mental illness are receiving good comprehensive care, their functioning goes up, their victimization rates go down, and they’re less likely to be perpetrators in the future.”

He added that 90 percent of the time, officers respond with less force than what the threat in a situation demands.

McDonagh talked about the physiology of the brain and what can be happening in the minds of people with mental illness when they do not respond to commands from officers.

He said many people with PTSD who commit violence are reacting to the immediate situation, which is different than violence perpetrated by people with a predator approach to committing a crime. He said there is a link between reaction aggression and PTSD.

Sexual assault victims have the highest rate of PTSD, McDonagh said, followed by combat veterans and police officers.

De Santis and McDonagh also are working to remove the stigma associated with mental illness.

McDonagh said it is essential to address prejudice and stigma against those with mental illness through positive interaction.

“If you get people together in the context of doing good, the stigma goes down,” McDonagh said, adding that stigma prevents people with PTSD from getting treated.

He said PTSD treatments are working for veterans, helping lessen the impact of traumatic events.

De Santis and McDonagh also discuss the public’s negative view of toward law enforcement.

Capt. David Edwards of the Sheriff’s Office coordinated the training sessions.

“As the years go along, we see a lot more interaction of people with disabilities and law enforcement, and it not turning out too good, and we’re here to understand,” he said. “Historically, we heard about PTSD around the Gulf War. … We’ve expanded this in recent years that it’s just not associated with soldiers, it can be a rape victim or someone that’s been exposed to something over and over.

“We see it all the time — homeless folks who are victimized all the time, and here we are showing up because someone is complaining about them,” he continued. “We can help them out rather than just get them out of the area.”

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