BATH — After a spike in calls related to mental health issues, Bath police have entered into a crisis intervention training program that aims to keep those with mental health conditions out of the criminal justice system in favor of more effective programs.

Bath police responded to 240 mental health calls in 2019, said Michael Field, Bath police chief. That number dipped to 206 in 2020, but officers have responded to 20 calls so far this year.

“At one point we had eight calls in a 24 hour period and they’re becoming more severe,” said Field. “I think COVID-19 has something to do with it. Everyone is isolated and I’m not sure how many people have been able to do face-to-face sessions with a therapist. Our officers need to have the latest and greatest training so a person in crisis gets the help they need.”

The department has partnered with National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine to launch a Crisis Intervention Training Program. The program will teach officers how to best help someone in mental health crisis and connect them with resources such as counseling or treatment centers, steering them away from the criminal justice system.

According to the alliance, one in four Mainers are impacted by mental health illness.

Marshall Mercer, has drifted in and out of prison, serving five years in total for drug charges. He said he wouldn’t have gone back to jail after his first sentence at 17 if he had been connected with the appropriate mental health and substance use resources. Photo courtesy of Marshall Mercer

Marshall Mercer, 40, of Machias said he wished the police officers he has encountered had received the same training that Bath officers are undergoing. Instead, Mercer, who has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance use disorder, said he felt targeted and misunderstood by police.

“In my past, I was on psychotics,” he said. “I’d be on medication that would help me with my ADHD but it would slow me down a bit so I wouldn’t be able to communicate with the police. When police officers would approach me, they were usually very combative, so I grew to have anger toward the police. With that kind of training, that could’ve had a different outcome.”

Mercer said he has spent five years in and out of prison on drug-related charges, first when he was 17-years-old. Most recently, he served three years on drug charges beginning when he was 34. He said he never received any mental health services or treatment for drug addiction while in prison.

“If I had gotten treatment rather than just put in jail, it would’ve helped,” said Mercer. “If you put someone in jail, you don’t become reformed, just hardened. I didn’t get treatment until I sought it out myself when I was 37. Now I’ve been in recovery for three years.”

Stacy Clayton, 45, of Blaine has been to jail twice and is facing more prison time, all for drug-related charges. While her sentences were each about 20 days, Clayton said she thinks she wouldn’t have gone back to jail if she had gotten help for her substance use disorder, anxiety and depression.

Mercer and Clayton both work as peer advisors with the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project, a network of people and organizations across the country advocating for addiction recovery policies.

“I’ve had a problem with drugs for most of my life and I wish the police would’ve talked to me about my drug problem and how to get help,” she said. “Right now, I’ve been on bail since July 2019, but since being on bail, I’ve gotten myself some mental health help and got myself into counseling.”

Stacy Clayton, 45, said she hopes Bath police officers remember to see people as individuals and look deeper than the crime they may have committed to see if they need mental health resources. Photo courtesy of Stacy Clayton

Like Mercer, Clayton said she didn’t have access to mental health or substance use recovery programs. Instead, Clayton said she “felt like I didn’t matter, that they didn’t care about me at all.”

“In my last interaction (with police) they had arrested me at 3 p.m. I was 8 months pregnant,” she said. “I did not get bail until 11:30 that night. I kept asking them for a drink or something to eat, but I didn’t get either. I remember that they were not mean to me, but there was also no level of care there at all, just get her processed and put in jail.”

Field said his officers were “quick to charge” people 15 years ago, but have since worked to get to understand why someone continues to return to the justice system.

“If we cycle them through the system, that doesn’t solve anything,” said Field. “We’re trying to focus on the root causes to break that cycle.”

“I’d like the police to see people as an individual and see if someone is in distress or they might need mental health services,” said Clayton. “If someone’s problems aren’t being solved and they’re going straight to jail, it turns into a revolving door of going in and out of jail.”

According to the alliance, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Nearly 15% of men and 30% of women booked into jails have a serious mental health condition.

“The vast majority of the individuals are not violent criminals—most people in jails have not yet gone to trial, so they are not yet convicted of a crime,” according to a statement in the alliance’s website. “After leaving jail, many no longer have access to needed healthcare and benefits. A criminal record often makes it hard for individuals to get a job or housing. At least 83% of jail inmates with a mental illness did not have access to needed treatment.”

Hannah Longley, the alliance’s director of community programs, said county jails have become the biggest providers of mental health services due a lack of community services.

“We want to bring the community together and support individuals struggling in the community,” said Longley. “The criminal justice system isn’t where we should be putting people who are sick. You wouldn’t put someone who’s having a seizure in prison so why would we put someone who’s having an anxiety attack there? We need to lift that stigma around mental illness.”

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