The role of police in preventing suicide
- Published: June 28, 2018
This article is second in a series on suicide and mental illness in the village.
After 3 a.m. a few months ago, an area man came into the Yellow Springs police station, asked to speak with an officer and sat down in one of the lobby chairs to wait. When Officer Mark Charles arrived, the man told him he did not feel safe by himself because of having suicidal thoughts earlier in the evening.
According to the officer’s report, the man told him he “feels strange and like nobody cares,” and discussed recent stresses and losses. When Charles asked if he would like to go to the hospital to get a mental evaluation, the man said he would.
Charles completed an Application for Emergency Admission, known as a “pink slip,” which requires any individual at risk of harming themselves or others to stay at a hospital for a period of up to three days for evaluation. Miami Township Fire and Rescue then took the man to the hospital.
In another recent local incident, a resident told police that a friend had been making statements about wanting to harm himself after a stressful day and that she thought he might have a gun.
Three officers — Officers Richard Neel, Dave Meister and Stephanie Bennington — arrived to find the man distraught but saying that he did not want to harm himself. He admitted to earlier telling a friend he “might as well blow his brains out,” but said it was out of frustration and that he did not mean it. The man also told police he had no firearms in his residence and that he didn’t want to go to the hospital. Police then asked the original caller to come over while the man calmed down, which she agreed to do. After she arrived, the police left.
Local police have responded ten times to a possibly suicidal person in the village this year. While each case is unique, in all of them police assess the safety of the situation and then choose a course of action. Sometimes the person is transferred to the hospital. Sometimes not. Often family and friends are contacted.
YS Police Chief Brian Carlson explained in a recent interview that it is up to the individual officer’s discretion how to handle a possibly suicidal person. And he asserted that the department is doing its part to prevent suicide in the village.
“We arrive with the full intention of helping the best we can,” Carlson said.
The YSPD is now expanding its ability to help those in a mental health crisis. Florence Randolph was hired in the newly created position of community outreach specialist earlier this year. She started on the job in April and has since spent much of her time in training, she said in a recent interview.
Soon, Randolph will be on call and will respond with officers on the scene during a suicidal crisis. And, critically, she will be able to follow up afterwards to connect the suicidal people with the help they need.
“The police go on a call and they handle it in the moment, but they don’t always have the time to do follow up,” Randolph said.
Randolph said she believes the police are an important local resource for those who are suicidal, or who know someone who is. Officers “have a myriad of resources and are, by law, able to get help,” according to Randolph.
“We want people to call the police,” she said.
But not every situation warrants a call to local police, according to trainers at a suicide prevention training on Monday in the village. There, some 40 attendees learned how to intervene directly when a person is considering suicide. The information offered in the training will be covered in an upcoming article in this series.
“We’re trying to step in in that moment to help them stay alive a little bit longer so we can help them navigate the mental health system,” said Adriane Miller, a trainer and the assistant director of treatment for the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Clark, Greene and Madison counties, on the role of civilians.
However, there are instances when the police should be called, according to Miller, who also lives in town. These include when someone is in the midst of killing themselves, they say they will kill themselves “no matter what,” they are intoxicated, or someone feels unsafe around the suicidal person, she said.
If someone dials 911, or calls the Yellow Springs Police non-emergency line about a possibly suicidal person in the village, how will the department likely respond? What support does the Village of Yellow Springs offer to those who are suicidal or with mental health issues? In this second article in a series, the News looks at the role of Village police in preventing suicide.
A rundown of local incidents
According to police records, since the start of 2018, police have responded ten times to a possibly suicidal person in the village. One incident was a confirmed suicide. They also assisted at two overdoses that may have been suicide attempts. Seven of the cases involved men and boys. Three were teenagers and three were in their 20s.
In two separate cases, a suicidal person came directly to the police station dispatch office to share their distress, in both instances agreeing to be taken to the hospital. One of the two was given a pink slip indicating that police decided that they might be an imminent danger to themselves or others.
Police were called by Yellow Springs High School and the Greene County Educational Services Center to come check on two students, one for making suicidal threats and the other for posting possibly suicidal comments on social media.
In one instance, a woman called from out of town to tell police about a possibly suicidal text message her son had just sent her while hiking in the Glen Helen Nature Preserve. In another, police learned that a man was in a car in the parking lot of Yellow Springs Primary Care threatening to harm himself. Medics arrived but did not take the man, who was with a family member, to the hospital.
And in January, police were called about an unconscious person in an apartment in town. There they found a 24-year-old resident had died by an apparent suicide. Later the coroner officially determined that it was indeed a suicide.
Assisting during a suicidal crisis
In a review of recent incidents, police seem to take a similar tack in responding to a suicidal subject. According to Carlson, when police officers arrive on the scene to deal with a suicidal person, they use their judgment to determine what kind of help they might need.
Typically, the officer will speak with the person. Police will call the MTFR squad, but first make sure the scene is safe before allowing the medics to enter, according to Carlson. Police also ask the individual if he or she would like to go to the hospital. If the person says yes, the squad takes them there.
If instead, a person denies wanting medical care, police cannot force them to go, unless the officer determines they might be a danger to themself or others. The officer would then complete a pink slip form, which is reserved for when a person “represents a substantial risk of physical harm to self or others if allowed to remain at liberty pending examination,” according to the Ohio Revised Code.
Police officers use their judgment to determine the best response in any given situation, Carlson said.
“We determine this on scene when we’re talking with someone,” Carlson said. “Police officers are the ones with the legal right to give a pink slip.”
Other mental health professionals such as physicians and psychiatrists can also issue pink slips, according to Franklin Halley, chief medical officer at TCN in Xenia, a community mental health clinic.
Halley, who is also a village resident, explained his process for deciding whether or not to “pink slip” someone.
“Number one is safety,” Halley said. “You can’t do anything else if a person isn’t safe.”
Every case is different, Halley added, and mental health professionals make their decision based upon a “huge spectrum” of possible illnesses and suicide triggers.
“A 22-year-old young person who broke up with a girlfriend and puts a statement on Facebook is different from a case of long-term chronic depression where the person overdoses on heroin intentionally,” Halley said, citing two hypothetical possibilities.
Sometimes patients who have been pink-slipped are released after a few hours by an emergency room doctor who believes they are no longer a risk, Halley explained. Alternatively they can be transferred to the hospital’s psychiatric ward for up to three working days for an evaluation. In some cases, the person continues with inpatient treatment and even more rarely does so against their will under a court order.
More likely, they will be released and offered continuing mental health support through TCN or another care provider, according to Halley. The ensuring treatment program is tailored to the individual, he explained.
“We use common sense, pragmatism and professional skills and awareness to identify what mental health issues they are dealing with, what psycho-social issues they have, and we can mesh that up with the best possible services,” Halley said.
The range of services include medication, counseling, group therapies, case management and, for those with serious mental illness, housing in group homes, according to Halley.
In addition, TCN, which operates in part from funds raised through a county mental health levy, makes its services accessible to those with low or no income. Money should be no barrier when someone is seeking mental health or substance use services, according to Halley.
“If you don’t have money, you can get all the services that we offer,” Halley said.
Police limitations, opportunities
But what happens after a suicidal crisis has been resolved and local police leave? Although police make efforts to follow up with the person, follow-up can be slow and comes with certain drawbacks, according to Carlson.
For one, due to officer schedules and the work loads, it can be four days or longer before they follow up with a suicidal person, Carlson said. Another factor is that police officers can “remind the person of a bad time” and thus may be less successful in convincing them to get help.
Because of those factors, earlier this year Randolph was brought into the department and will soon be “part of the process right off the bat,” Carlson said.
“Eventually she will be the key player after the [suicidal] incidents to contact family members, which will be a much easier connection for people to make rather than the officer who was there at the critical time,” Carlson said.
The idea for a social worker to join the police department was originally proposed by the Justice System Task Force in a 2017 recommendation to Council. Randolph comes to the department with both a degree in social work and experience in the criminal justice system. She is also a longtime villager, having lived here for 34 years, working for most of her career at the Antioch Company and Creative Memories.
After recently re-certifying in Mental Health First Aid, Randolph will soon be on call to assist police during a suicidal crisis, but her main role is following up after such incidents, “making rounds” to assist those with recurring mental health issues and making herself available to anyone in the village who needs help, she said.
“I provide assistance and services to community members in need of social services, mental health interventions, crisis interventions — it’s kind of a catch–all for whoever needs help,” Randolph said.
Making referrals will be Randolph’s primary role, she added, since she will not be offering services directly. And she cannot compel anyone to use the resources that are available, she added.
“You can only refer them [to resources], you can connect them, and they can choose to use or reject them,” Randolph said.
Addressing comments she has heard in the community that the police shouldn’t be called when someone is having a a suicidal crisis, Randolph said she disagrees. Instead, she hopes that police remain an option for people in crisis. Currently, efforts are being made in the department to make it a “safe place” for all people, no matter their background or prior experience with the police, she said.
“The police department should be seen as a place where all those people come for help,” Randolph said.
Randolph also said she hopes that those who have had a prior bad experience with the police can get beyond it and feel safe enough to call the police for help when they need it.
“Don’t be afraid to call the police,” Randolph said.
Randolph can be contacted directly at 767-3716 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
News intern Morgan Beard contributed to this article.