Logo of REAL program showing turtle with wings
As part of the REAL program, a partnership with the Mental Health Association of Nebraska, Lincoln police can refer people suffering from a mental illness to the association for voluntary help.

By Cassandra Kostal

It’s not easy to stop an assailant that can’t be seen.

For people who suffer from mental health issues, law enforcement is often the first point of contact when they are looking for help because when they don’t know who else to call, they call 911.

As of April 3, the Lincoln Police Department has responded to 951 mental health calls since the start of 2020. They also responded to nine suicides and 115 suicide attempts.

“The reason why we tend to get involved is, at least I think, a lot of times people just call the police because we’ll show up,” said LPD Sgt. John Walsh.

Walsh spends his time monitoring mental health statistics and outreach for LPD. He also travels to give presentations on the prevalence of mental health in police work to law enforcement agencies across the country.

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Lincoln police Sgt. John Walsh monitors mental health statistics and outreach for LPD.

According to Walsh’s latest statistics, 2019 was the first year that the LPD’s mental health calls for service had gone down since 2000, but he said he doesn’t know what to attribute the change to.

Mental health training has been a part of the LPD’s academy curriculum since before Walsh joined the department in 1999. During field training, he said, new officers are required to go out on so many different types of calls to get the necessary hands-on experience.

“You have a checklist and so if you have a good field training officer, they will take you on these calls that deal with mental health,” he said.

The first priority of law enforcement officers when dealing with individuals with mental health issues is to listen. Once they are able to assess the situation, they do their best to connect them with the proper resources.

To handle the situations that arise from dealing with mentally ill individuals, LPD partners with organizations in Lincoln to provide the necessary resources. One of these resources is the REAL program, a collaboration with the Mental Health Association of Nebraska.

REAL (respond, empower, advocate and listen) was launched in 2011 between LPD and the mental health association. Through the program, LPD officers can refer people suffering from a mental illness to the association for voluntary help.

“Our job is very tangible and relevant to the people who are experiencing those things at this time,” said Chad Magdanz, program coordinator at the association. “We help them walk through that. Let cops do what cops do, and we do the mental health part of things.”

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Chad Magdanz, program coordinator for the Mental Health Association of Nebraska, says the REAL program acts as a mental health resource for the Lincoln Police Department.

The association staff are not clinicians, Magdanz said, but they are people with lived mental health experiences who can relate to the people who come to them for assistance. Since the program started, they have had over 4,000 referrals from the LPD for people seeking help.

Unlike traditional counseling, the people seeking help are in charge of the services that they receive. The association is just there to guide them to the resources that best meet their needs.

“I’m not here to tell you what to do,” Magdanz said. “Everything we do is voluntary. We just simply have the time to sit there. If you’re not doing well, the cops don’t have three hours, but my staff does.”

When the mental health association opened 12 years ago, it  only had six staff members. Now, it has a staff of 50. According to Magdanz, the work they do day-to-day would equal three full-time LPD officers doing nothing for 40 hours a week except responding to mental health calls.

Dangerousness and mental illness are often confused, Magdanz said, when in reality, people suffering from mental illness are much more likely to be victims of crime than perpetuate crime. Once officers understand this, he said, the stigmas will start to disappear.

Through the program, LPD officers learn how to best handle mental health cases when they are the first point of contact before the association gets involved. Following the acronym of the program, they are trained to be open and accepting as they work toward the best solution.

“The officers understand that they are seeing people on their worst days,” Magdanz said. “That can grind us all down, so I think their philosophy is changing. They recognize that this is a person having a bad day, versus just a person existing.”

When 1 in 5 people can be diagnosed with a mental illness, bad days happen to people of all ages. Mental illnesses like schizophrenia, are often diagnosed between 18 and 25 years old, creating a pocket of susceptibility for students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Magdanz said.

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University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Chief Hassan Ramzah said his department partners with UNL’s Counseling and Psychological Services to help with the mental health calls.

On campus, the first point of contact for students, faculty and staff dealing with mental health issues is the UNL Police Department. UNLPD, like other police departments, is available 24/7 to respond to calls on campus.

“We’re not psychologists or someone that can make a diagnosis, but we are first responders,” said UNLPD Chief Hassan Ramzah. “The role that we play is to try to get a student who may be in crisis or need of assistance to the right person and the right resource to be able to best meet their needs.”

With the volume of resources available through the university, the association and their resources don’t extend to the university campuses. Instead the UNLPD partners with UNL’s Counseling and Psychological Services to assist with the mental health calls for service they receive.

“The important thing that we try not to do is criminalize mental health,” Ramzah said. “It’s important to make an assessment, and safety is also paramount. You want to make sure that the students that are in need are safe or put in a situation where they can stay safe.”

Along with victim safety, concerns are rising over the well-being of the first responders that handle these cases. During any given shift, they’re exposed to the trauma of the people they serve and the psychological effect of being on the front lines every day is known to take its toll.

“Job stressors are there just because they’re dealing with people that oftentimes are hostile or are not excited to see them,” said Gail Sutter, executive director of Continuum EAP. “They go into a lot of situations with lots of unknowns and address situations that certainly have impact.”

An employee assistance program, Continuum serves the city of Lincoln, which includes the LPD. They offer counseling and coaching services to officers and their immediate family members through their team of licensed professional mental health providers.

LPD was one of the first in the United States to develop an Internal Resource Officer program where a committee of officers work with Continuum to reach out and make sure they’re a conduit to get officers and their families the resources they need, Sutter said.

Continuum meets with all recruits before they go out on the streets. The recruits meet with a counselor to do a well-being check and learn about the services that they offer.

“Making sure folks are aware of their own well-being and doing good things to take care of themselves makes them better officers,” Sutter said. “It also takes care of their families better and so I think anytime we can intervene sooner or offer resources that they’re going to be comfortable taking advantage of, it’s a win-win.”

Lack of communication is a recognized stressor that exists for law enforcement employees, Ramzah said.  One of the core things they try to focus on is asking “Are you OK?” and listening to what someone has to say because some response is better than no response, he said.

 If we can’t serve the public, then we’re putting the public at a disadvantage,” he said. “So, we have to have resources in place to make sure we take care of ourselves.”

Treating mental illness is about listening to the problems that an individual is facing and finding them the right resources to help them get to a better place. The hard part of that is finding what works best for everyone involved and acting accordingly.

“Fairness is not giving everybody the same thing,” Magdanz said. “Fairness is supporting people with needs they have. That doesn’t mean everybody across the board gets the same thing. Fairness is getting the resources to people who need the resources.”