Crisis Intervention Training

Howard County Police PFC Michael Marino talks with actress Jill Hettinger as she plays the part of a bipolar alcoholic during a domestic disturbance scenario. Actors from "Mental Health Players" (part of the Mental Health Association of Maryland) helped train police officers in the handling of situations involving the mentally ill. (Staff photo by Kitty Charlton / June 15, 2011)

With voices in her head distracting her, Kimberly Sikalis is struggling to think straight.

"Good morning, I'm the intake worker for the Psychiatric Emergency Services Clinic," a woman with cropped brown hair says to Sikalis.

The woman begins with a series of routine questions to see how Sikalis is cognitively functioning, then she asks Sikalis to do some simple math.

"Starting with the number 100, I want you to count backwards by seven," the woman says.

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"Okay, 100, 93..." Sikalis stutters."I can't count the voices keep messing me up."

A brief pause, and Sikalis continues.


Another pause, and Sikalis, though smiling, seems defeated.

"I can't," she says. "It's messing up my concentration."

Sikalis, a communications supervisor for the Howard County 911 center, does not actually have schizophrenia, a complex mental disorder that makes it difficult to discern the difference between real and unreal experiences. Instead, she was wearing headphones connected to an IPod Shuffle to simulate the disorder.

The accomplished 911 manager, named civilian employee of the year this year by the Howard County Police Department, was participating in a Crisis Intervention Training program run by county police. Held last week at the James N. Robey Public Safety Training Center in Marriottsville, the program was aimed at helping officers and civilian police department employees interact appropriately with individuals who suffer from mental disorders.

The training included hands-on exercises — such as role-playing sessions where mental health professionals simulate having a mental disorder and trainees practice how best to communicate with them — and one-on-one interactions with individuals who have mental disorders.

Police Chief William McMahon first embraced the idea of such training in the fall of 2008, when he went to a conference on mental health training with Donna Wells, director of the Howard County Mental Health Authority. The following year, McMahon sent several police officers to a Crisis Intervention Training program in Montgomery County — including Lt. Robert Wagner, who now runs the Howard County program.

In October of 2010, Howard County offered its first in-house, week-long Crisis Intervention Training Program. Last week's was the second.

"It enhances the training that we do as a police department," Wagner said. "It gives us options. ... Sometimes, instead of incarceration, we can direct individuals towards treatment."

More tools in kit

Wagner said police officers often deal with people who have mental disorders. In fact, he said, about one-quarter of those incarcerated have some form of mental illness.

"The more information that we can give police officers about identifying that this is an illness and that there are resources in the community, the more that they can help," said Wells. "Knowledge is power. It really gives the officers more tools in their tool kit."

Wells said that if officers can identify an individual suffering from mental illness and help him get help, that individual is less likely to cause trouble in the future.

"So (police) are not going out to repeated calls with no outcome," Wells said. "Treatment works."