July 31, 2012

If someone's on the brink, he's there to talk them down

Crisis counselor Bob Rockett stopped a man from jumping off a dam near the Maine Mall last week.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Bob Rockett smelled the gasoline through the open window of his unmarked police car as he pulled off Interstate 295.

click image to enlarge

Bob Rockett

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

He had just been briefed by a dispatch supervisor about a man who had doused himself with gasoline, possibly armed with a knife, and was standing on the edge of what turned out to be a dam just off Westbrook Street in South Portland, threatening to jump.

Rockett is a crisis counselor with Opportunity Alliance, assigned to the Portland Police Department. He responds as needed to South Portland.

His voice and demeanor are steady and soothing, ideal for someone who's called on to communicate with people who are desperate, despondent or delusional -- threatening themselves or others.

Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said crisis counselors like Rockett are incredibly patient and compassionate, an ideal complement to police and firefighters in some situations. "Their communication skills and just straight people skills are top-notch," he said.

In the period from April through the end of June, Portland police responded to 15,585 calls for service, 1,000 of which were ultimately mental health calls.

The department's behavioral health unit has expanded along with the increase in calls about people in mental health crisis. It now includes Rockett and the team's coordinator, who is also a crisis counselor, and three interns.

On Thursday, with rush hour beginning, Rockett pulled up to the chaotic scene and was briefed by a South Portland police commander.

Over the south side of Westbrook Street, just before it passes under I-295, is a concrete dam, about 4 feet wide, with a drop of about 20 feet to rocks and the shallow water.

The distraught man, who after covering himself in gasoline had dashed across the busy road and out onto the dam, was threatening to dive.

Rockett worked his way through the dense tangle of sumac to one end of the bridge and called to the man.

Crisis counselors have to stay safe, especially if a person might be armed. If a person has a gun, police negotiators with the tactical team handle communications.

Conditions on the dam were far from ideal.

Rockett had to yell to the man over the sound of the waterfall that separated them and the traffic zipping by above. Yelling isn't conducive to de-escalating a tense situation, and the man couldn't hear him anyway.

Rockett walked around to the other side, where the man was on the edge of the dam, and climbed down an overgrown hillside so he could stand on a tangle of debris at the water's edge.

"I felt if I stepped the wrong way I could have been an accidental casualty," he said. "It was very precarious."

He started a conversation.

"As quickly as possible, you want to try to find out who the person is, what their motivations are for being in the particular situation," Rockett said.

"You're not trying to do impromptu therapy. The relationship, the rapport, is what's vital. You're helping them move through that crisis phase, get from an irrational place to a more rational place," he said.

Rockett gets people to focus on their values, on what's important to them, and how they can get there.

Rockett, 47, has a breadth of social work experience -- in the special management unit of the Maine State Prison, as an outreach worker with Portland's homeless population and in outpatient therapy.

Portland police statistics show that the number of police calls caused by mental health problems ranges from 4 to 6 percent, said Jo Freedman, mental health coordinator for the department.

Freedman oversees Rockett and three interns, who are in the University of Southern Maine's master's degree program in social work. Freedman also goes on calls.

(Continued on page 2)

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