Mental health training becoming priority for emergency crews in Johnson County

IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) -- Emergency responders across the nation, and here in eastern Iowa, want to be better prepared next time they meet someone having a mental health crisis.

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It happens in the US more than you might think. Research suggests up to 10% of all police calls are because of someone having an acute symptom related to mental illness.

With that in mind, last week, some of Iowa City's firefighters spent three days, not knocking down fires, but studying up on mental illness.

"I'm teaching them how to identify when someone is having a mental health crisis," said Rochelle Honey-Arcement, with the Johnson County Crisis Center.

She said the goal of the lessons was to keep people in a mental health crisis from ending end up in jail or hospitals, simply because first responders have no other safe place to take them. Instead-- Honey-Arcement wanted to explain the options that are out there before the last resort become the first.

"We can connect those individuals to resources in the community," said Honey-Arcement. "This way we can decrease some of the repeat callers that the firefighters get."

Training first responders is something Johnson County has taken very seriously, in recent years. Since at least 2016, law enforcement has been heading out to San Antonio for 40-hours worth of Crisis Intervention Team training, a program that aims to do pretty much the same thing, teach emergency responders how to help those with mental illness during a crisis.

In meetings with city officials over the last couple of years, authorities have said the training is making a difference on the streets.

"I use this training every single day," said Ashley Jay, an Iowa City Police officer, while speaking to a group when CIT training was gaining attention in 2016. "For mental health calls especially, but this training has been very beneficial for other calls too.//I bet it works out to be a call a shift that these CIT skills are used for mental health."

The stats are pretty supportive too. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that in Memphis, CIT cut down officer injuries during mental health crisis calls by 80%. In Detroit, it was potentially saving money. An inmate in jail cost around $31,000 a year. Community-based mental health treatment was only $10,000 a year.

Something else Johnson County is working on-- the Access/Behavioral Health Urgent Care Center. It would be a place for people dealing with addiction or mental health issues. Right now, Johnson County Supervisors are still in the planning phase.