“Nauseous,” “confused,” “on edge,” and “agitated.”
Those were just a few of the reactions of some of the 45 law enforcement professionals who participated in a simulated exercise entitled, “Hearing Voices That Are Distressing,” at Silver Hill Hospital Wednesday afternoon.
The exercise, part of the 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training Program hosted for the sixth year by Silver Hill in conjunction with the Connecticut Alliance to Benefit Law Enforcement (CABLE), is designed give officers skills to diffuse potentially violent encounters with the mentally ill.
Participants were selected for their, “police skill, compassion, patience and ability to think creatively,” according to a press release.
Five members of the New Canaan Police Department, Lieutenant Frank Pickering and Officers Andrea Alexander, George Caponera, Brian Connelly and Roberto Lopez, joined colleagues from the CT State Police, US Department of Veteran’s Affairs, probation officers from Norwalk and Stamford, and officers from Danbury, Darien, Fairfield, Greenwich, New Milford, Norwalk and Stamford.
The “Hearing Voices” exercise required the officers to wear headsets, which played recordings said to simulate the voices a mentally ill person hears in their head, while attempting to perform a set of tasks.
This reporter was invited to don a headset in order to completely appreciate the challenge these officers, and the mentally ill, face.
As they walked the building and attempted to complete assignments including visits to a “bank” and “grocery store,” walking the outside perimeter of the building to count windows, and asking questions of others in the room in order to obtain a required number of signatures, participants heard whispers, singing, voices screaming and berating them, numerous four-letter epithets, and voices that encouraged negative behavior or offered grandiose visions of their abilities.
Lt. Pickering said that he had found this exercise, and the program as a whole helpful. He said he learned here and at Tuesday’s workshop, “Suicide by Cop,” that while training often teaches that a situation is best diffused quickly that in these instances, “time works in your favor.”
Asked if he encounters situations with the mentally ill, he said it happens often. In addition to incidents in town, he said officers are called to Silver Hill to assist with patients. Regarding suicide, he said that while they are not often carried out, officers in New Canaan do encounter those who discuss or threaten to harm themselves on a weekly basis.
Moderator Leigh-Ann Boatwright from the State Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, led the discussion following the exercise.
Participants other comments included, thoughts that it was “difficult to focus,” and that, “When voices stopped, relief,” followed by anxiety as they, “waited for them to come back on.”
She warned that the officers might be hearing the voices in their heads for a while after they left the workshop.
“Remember, you know you’re here for a short training time,” Boatwright reminded them, adding that the reality is quite different. She said the mentally ill, “don’t know when it will end,” and although medication and proper diagnosis can help, “Many experience voices for the rest of their lives.”