De-escalation Skills and Tips for Mental Health in the Community

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A program in Eugene, Oregon, where social workers and medics, instead of police officers, respond to certain calls, saves the city $8.5 million a year in policing costs. With police officers spending 21% of their time on people with mental health issues, employing more mental health professionals to work alongside police officers makes sense.

To learn more, check out the infographic below, created by Regis College’s Master of Social Work program.

How social workers can help alleviate the threat of elevated mental health problems.

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Mental Health in the U.S.

Mental health problems are difficult enough to deal with on their own, but those issues often cascade into other problems, including homelessness, incarceration, and encounters with law enforcement.

Studies show those with severe mental illness are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated than receive care in a treatment facility, and four times more likely to be jailed for low-level offenses compared to offenders without mental illness. Studies also indicate mental illness plays a role in 10% of all homicides, 29% of family homicides, and 50% of mass murders.

People with mental health issues are far more likely to encounter law enforcement. One of the key reasons for this is because mental health is the only health-related issue for which the police are usually first responders. In fact, 30% of those with mental illness first receive treatment following an interaction with law enforcement. Additionally, 25% of all fatal police shootings involve someone with an unrelated mental illness.

The use of law enforcement agencies in situations with a mental health component can have a profound impact. When a mental health component is involved, law enforcement agencies use 90% more resources, 21% of their time, and 10% of their financial budgets.

How Social Workers Provide Assistance

Some municipalities are trying different methods to better serve mentally ill community members and free up law enforcement resources. To support these efforts, social workers focus on treating people with dignity and respect and determining the root causes of the issues at hand. Dealing with underlying causes helps people access appropriate treatment and assistance rather than become incarcerated.

Eugene, Oregon: Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS)

Founded in 1989, CAHOOTS pairs an emergency medic and a mental health professional. Together, they respond to roughly 20% of incoming 911 calls. 60% of the calls’ care recipients are homeless, and 30% have severe mental illness. These calls are often related to mental illness, counseling, anxiety, alcohol, medical or shelter issues, depression, drugs, need for food and water, or family.

The program, which saves the city about $22 million annually on public safety and medical care, provides services including suicide prevention, conflict resolution, welfare checks, counseling, and psychological evaluation.

Denver, Colorado: Support Team Assisted Response (STAR)

Founded in 2020 after a four-year trial, STAR also teams up an emergency medic and a mental health professional, who are dispatched via the city’s 911 call center. STAR responds to situations such as drug overdoses, mental health calls, people experiencing homelessness, or people at risk for suicide.

Houston, Texas: Crisis Intervention Response Team (CIRT)

Founded in 2008, CIRT features 12 teams of social workers and specially trained police officers dispatched via the city’s 911 call center. In 2019, CIRT took 5,519 calls. Some services provided include information on mental health and treatment abuse resources, family mental health education and outreach, and support for SWAT teams as a mental health resource.

De-escalation Skills and Tips for Social Workers

De-escalation is avoiding or preventing an escalation in undesired behavior. It’s sometimes called conflict resolution, verbal de-escalation, or crisis intervention.

It’s an essential skill for social workers, who must also display patience, empathy, compassion, and a genuine desire to help people in crisis. De-escalation is important because social workers can face volatile situations, including people who are hostile, delusional, defiant, paranoid, or schizophrenic.

Fortunately, social workers are uniquely qualified to assist individuals in the community and connect people to resources. They are specifically trained to identify a person’s needs, strengths, and current available support; provide mental health and behavioral counseling; and assist people in adjusting to the challenges they face.

Here are some tips that social workers (or anyone else) should consider when dealing with people in crisis:

  1. Maintain non-threatening body language.
  2. Stand back about three feet.
  3. Stay calm and professional.
  4. Focus on solving the immediate problem.
  5. Show empathy.
  6. Accept slow responses.
  7. Give simple, clear instructions.
  8. Look for the root of the problem.
  9. Be flexible, if possible.
  10. Give the person time to think about the situation.

Providing a Vital Helping Hand

With protests across the country calling for reform in American policing, many cities are already taking steps to involve social workers in an effort to divert people experiencing mental health crises away from the judicial system. Judging by the results of programs such as CAHOOTS and STAR, social workers play an important role in connecting struggling people with community resources.