Research In Action

Research In Action

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Seeking Help in Behavioral Crisis
March 25, 2021

“When I heard the news, all I could think about was that could be my son,” reported the mother of a 7-year-old African American boy with autism spectrum disorder and aggressive behaviors, discussing the recent killing of Walter Wallace, Jr. by the police. This child lives mere blocks from where the shooting took place in West Philadelphia, but he shares more than geography and skin tone with the most recent local victim of police violence.

“When I heard the news, all I could think about was that could be my son.”

Mr. Wallace had known mental health conditions and, like my (Dr. Wallis) patient, would occasionally become aggressive to his parents. It was in one of these moments that Mr. Wallace’s parents called 9-1-1, hoping to get him the help he needed. The police responded and within 40 seconds of their arrival fatally shot Mr. Wallace. This mother wondered where she could go for help if her son has an aggressive moment. Whom can she call for help?

More recently, we again bore witness to an aggressive response to a mental health crisis, this time targeting a 9-year-old African American child in Buffalo, NY. Police responded after the child threatened to hurt herself. When she resisted being placed in a police car, the officers used force and pepper spray to try to restrain her.

After incidents like these occur, families of children with behavioral and mental health concerns wonder where to safely seek help in an emergency. Some families may feel comfortable sharing these concerns with their healthcare providers; but, undoubtedly, many do not. As we grapple with the injustices in our society that these acts represent, we as clinicians have an obligation to discuss and provide guidance to our patients about where to safely seek help.

What Clinicians Can Do

Clinicians should routinely ask families about where they feel comfortable seeking help during an emergency. In asking, we must also acknowledge that BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) parents and children are more likely to experience violence during interactions with law enforcement. The tendency to perceive BIPOC children as older can also lead to inappropriate expectations in the interaction, which can have disastrous consequences. For example, Black girls tend to be viewed as less innocent and more adult than their same-age White counterparts. The young girl from Buffalo shouted to the police officers, “I am a child!” as if responding to these data. For children with behavioral and mental health conditions, and especially those who identify as BIPOC, interactions with law enforcement can quickly escalate.

In responding to caregiver concerns about where to seek emergency help, resources are available.

Resources to Share with Families

  • Healthy Minds Philly provides FREE “Mental Health First Aid” educational training and certification (adult and youth) to individuals in the community on how to identify and respond when a family member may be experiencing a behavioral health challenge or crisis. Youth certification is focused on how to support an adolescent (ages 12-18) who is experiencing mental health or addiction challenges or is in crisis. Topics include a variety of mental health diagnoses and challenges and how to respond with a five-step action plan.
  • When calling 9-1-1 for a mental health emergency, caregivers can request a Crisis Intervention Team (CIT)-trained officer. Members of this team receive education on de-escalation techniques and on how to safely assist someone to help in a crisis. Click here and here for more about CIT Training in Philadelphia.

A Broader Call to Action

But the burden should not be on caregivers to ensure that emergency responders respond appropriately and professionally in moments of crisis. We call on our city’s leaders to dedicate adequate resources, training, and support to help Philadelphia’s citizens experiencing mental health emergencies. The Philadelphia Police Department has committed to providing more resources to behavioral health, such as response teams that include mental health professionals to respond to crises. We look forward to seeing these changes swiftly enacted. Families need to know whom to call during an emergency, and trust that the individuals who answer those calls will respond with the help they need.

If you or someone you know needs help, additional resources are available:

  • 24/7 emergency behavioral health support and direction to treatment in Philadelphia (Call 215-685-6440)
  • 24/7 crisis TEXT line from anywhere in the US (text “HOME” to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor)
  • NAMI Philadelphia WARMline (staffed with Certified Peer Specialists) when someone just needs to talk (Call 267-687-4381 *OPTION1)