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Out of the Shadows: How our police force deals with mentally ill children

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As a thirteen-year-veteran of the Chicago Police Department, Julie Joyce has seen her fair of violent kids.  Kids who are abusing their parents, or siblings or others. Kids who appear to be out of control. And at that moment, she realizes that police officers have a decision to make. 

“If somebody is in danger of hurting themselves or others, then we have to take the proper steps to address that.  And I call it, when I speak to officers, ‘talking a person off a ledge’," Joyce says. 

"Not necessarily that they’re on a ledge, but that’s how you should talk to them.  You know.  ‘Which side do you want them to go over?  Do you want them to go off the end, or do you want them to come to safety?’"

And she does everything she can to bring them back from the ledge. 

“I talk about my personal life, I tell them, ‘I really do understand what you’re going through.  No, I’m not sick myself, I’ve never suffered a psychotic episode, but I know what it looks like.  I know how much you’re hurting.’  And ‘I’m here to help you, I’m not here to hurt you,’" she points out.  "Whatever it takes, whatever I can come up with.  Sometimes, we’ll have to stand outside and smoke for a while or I’ll have to sit on their couch and talk for a while.  And, sometimes, they’ll just stand there and scream in my face and call me all kinds of names.  But at the end of it, they realize that I’m not leaving.  And I haven’t yet jumped on them or cuffed them, so I think it does build that level of trust a little more.”

What Officer Joyce often tells the subjects she encounters at work is that she brings personal experience to roll call.   She has an eighteen-year-old son at home named Christopher who suffers from ADHD and bipolar disorder. And he’s had a rough time. 

Early on in his illness he was wrongly diagnosed and improperly medicated. It was corrected, but soon came adolescence, and with it, hormonal changes that only added to the complications of living with his disorders.  Add teen angst to the mix and it equaled fits of rage. 

But it wasn’t just the mental illness Joyce and her son Christopher were trying to cope with.  It was dealing with a system that offers few options when things get bad.  

“When Christopher was first in the hospital, he was twelve-years-old. (He was a) twelve-year-old had to be searched.  Strip searched!," she recalls.  "He wasn’t there for drugs or trying to kill himself, he was there for medication adjustment.  The only time they call you is, let’s say, they called me at 1:00am in the morning and say ‘Hi Miss Joyce.  We had to restrain your son for fifteen minutes, and 2.5 seconds.  And then we shot him up.’"

She was distraught. 

“Taking him to a hospital when he had to go - it killed me!," she continues.  "If you’ve ever met people who have to take their children into these hospitals, it’s like taking your child to jail.  You know?  My kid did nothing wrong, and he would say that: ‘what did I do wrong?!’ And I would say ‘you did nothing wrong.  We have to get your medication fixed and I can’t… I can’t help you.’  And, it breaks your heart.”

Many families dealing with mental illness refer to the lack of dignity and sensitivity they often face at the hands of figures of authority. Little training or understanding of the complex needs of those living with mental illness can often exacerbate a tense situation. 

This issue exists in many areas of authority, including police departments.  That’s why agencies like the National Alliance on Mental Illness – or, NAMI – suggest public safety officers undergo training on how to deal with mentally ill subjects. 

Suzanne Andriukaitis is Executive Director of NAMI of Greater Chicago.  She says that when NAMI first started urging the Chicago Police Department, they said “Nah, we don’t need that.” But the incidents continued, and it became clear to people inside and out of the police department that something needed to be done.  

So, they looked at Crisis Intervention Team training – or CIT. That's a program devised to teach police officers to de-escalate a situation, improve safety and provide crisis prevention, which helps maintain the safety of the officer and that of the mentally ill subject, or “consumer” as police often call subjects.

It took a few years, but this led to a pilot CIT program within CPD. And the trial pilot program was a success by most measures. 

“In the year and a half, two-years that they evaluated the pilot program, they documented 465 encounters between CIT-trained officers, and individuals in the community who were having a ‘crisis,’ a mental health crisis, and there were no injuries to the individuals, either," said Andriukaitis.  "So, both of those things, together, convinced the Chicago Police Department that this was a good program."

By the mid-2000s, with the help of NAMI and others in the community, Chicago established its own Crisis Intervention Team training program. And it’s since expanded from the several-dozen officers who trained in its pilot program. Today, hundreds of officers have received CIT training.

CIT officers work hard to prevent mentally ill subjects from ending up in jail. They redirect them to services in the community or hospitals.

But it wasn’t until a few years after the program launched that Officer Joyce heard of the CIT training.  It was a perfect fit – a marriage of her passions, and she jumped on the opportunity. 

Following her training, Joyce began working with fellow officers who wanted to expand their CIT program into a new area.  They worked once again with NAMI and other stakeholders to develop a program for kids & adolescents. 

“It wasn’t just our ideas, it was everybody’s ideas," said Joyce.  "So I think, collaboratively, it’s an excellent program.  And it was also great being the first department in the nation to do it.”

They now had an advanced CIT training program for youth.  And Officer Julie Joyce even asked to participate on one of the training panels.  But she didn’t do it alone.  She has a partner in her son, Christopher. When they went to the panel, he was incredibly open.  

“I told my mom I would talk," Christopher says. "I would answer any question.  Any question.”

Joyce is proud of the experience.  “We did it together the first time, sink or swim,"she recalls of that first day.  "And it was amazing.  He was amazing. He really surprised me.”

"They asked me things like, ‘How do you react?  What are your triggers?  How can we as police officers, and how can we as crisis workers, how can we react to something like this?  And how can we help (you) cope with this situation?’," Christopher remembers

The decision to go in front of her fellow officers and reveal so much of her personal life – including talking about her son’s mental illness – wasn’t an easy one for Joyce.  A lot of stigma is attached, but it’s been worth it - for Christopher, for Officer Joyce, and for her brethren in blue.  

“One guy was very happy. He came up and was like ‘You know what? To be honest, I’m not gonna lie: I thought this program was dumb.’," Christopher says. "(He) came up to me and he said ‘Thank the Lord I met you'."

"But that’s happened numerous times," Joyce points out. "People have thanked him and hugged him and told him how proud they are of him.”

And Christopher jokes, perhaps out of self-consciousness, “He slipped me twenty-bucks in the back, you know what I’m sayin’?”

For Joyce, the rewards of watching her son connect with her fellow officers like that meant so much more than this isolated moment.  

“Just seeing that, it’s almost like he just graduated from Harvard.  You know?," Joyce laughs.  "I can only imagine what a parent feels like when their kid graduates from an Ivy League school, but that’s kinda how I felt.  Like, ‘look at him.  Look at him!’  Because if you would have asked me when he was five years old if we’d be sitting here, or there, or anywhere, I could have told you I don’t know what we’re doing tomorrow.  I mean, I could never fathom that we would come this far, and that he would be on this journey with me.  By doing this CIT training, he also speaks more openly, especially around his peers.  So now his peers start to look at him like a role model, and reach out to him for help.  So, it’s kind of going full-circle."

I asked what the car ride was home after they led the discussion at their first CIT training together. 

“I just told him how proud I was of him… the whole way home," says Joyce.  "And then he asked me what (there) was to eat.” 

Joyce laughs as she recalls her son’s humorous deflection. 

“But I also told him that the one thing that the officers would remember was what he said," she continues.  "When they’re on the street, they’re always going to remember. Your voice is going to be in their head.  That will stay with them for the rest of their career.”

This story is one in a series of reports in our series Out of the Shadows, exploring the challenges facing mentally ill youth in Illinois. 

Join the conversation: Ask experts about mental illness in our live chat.

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