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New Training Brings Together N.H. First-Responders and People with Mental Illness

Jason Moon / NHPR

Earlier this month, a group of police officers, firefighters, and paramedics became the first in New Hampshire to complete an intensive course on how to react to people in mental health crisis. It brought together people with firsthand experience from both sides of that interaction.

Inside a small carpeted classroom at the New Hampshire Fire Academy, two police officers are trying to get through to a woman in crisis. They're worried she might be suicidal.

"Hi April, my name is Chris. I’m with the police department and I’m here to help you. Can you tell me what’s going on today?"

"Please just go away, I don’t want any help," April replies.

Through the door, April tells the officers that no one cares about her -- and that she just swallowed a handful of pills.

"April, can I talk with you with you for a second? I’m Chris’s partner, Dave. I understand you got two children. So, that in itself is enough that -- they care about you. We do care about you. I know that you’re going through a bad time in your life, but we’re here to help you."

The officers plead with her to open the bathroom door. They try to reassure her by telling her they’re not here to take her to jail. Eventually she lets them in.

Then Sue Allen-Samuel, an instructor who’s been watching from the edge of the room calls an end to this role-playing scenario. She turns to the class, a half-dozen or so first responders who’ve also been watching from their desks.

"There’s a key thing they did right," says Allen-Samuel, "how did he really connect with her?

"Kids," someone says.

"You got it," says Allen-Samuel.

This exercise is part of a week-long training in crisis intervention for first responders,  led by the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

It comes partly in response to some sobering statistics. From 1999 to 2017, 25 of the 55 people shot by police in New Hampshire had a documented mental illness.

This training is designed to give police and other first responders the tools to de-escalate those types of tense situations. Or better yet, to keep them from ever reaching that point.

Over the course of the week, the first responders learned about autism, Alzheimer’s, personality disorders, depression, PTSD, co-occurring substance abuse, and more. They also took field trips to a community mental health center and to New Hampshire Hospital, the state’s main inpatient psychiatric care facility.

Now, on this last day of the training, these role-playing scenarios give the first responders a chance to try out some of the skills they’ve learned.

But while the scenarios themselves are just simulations, the stories and characters behind them are not. April, the woman who was pretending to be locked in the bathroom—her real name is Kim Lamontagne.

"I was that person in the corner back in 2013," she tells the class. "I was home alone in my house, and I could literally go through every single person in my life and could find a reason why each and every one of those individuals would be better off without me."

Lamontagne isn’t the only person using her personal story to help first-responders understand mental illness.

In a classroom next door, in a different scene, Monique Jevne is also playing a character based on herself. In her story, a McDonald’s manager has called the police because Jevne is acting erratically, talking and singing to herself inside the restaurant.

Jevne is diagnosed with schizophrenia. But the two state troopers who respond to the call don’t know that yet.

After the role play is finished, Jevne takes questions from the first responders on what it’s like to live with schizophrenia.

"Are you conscious of what’s hallucination and what’s not?" one first responder asks.

"No, unfortunately I have to do reality checks quite a lot," replies Jevne. "Less now with all the medicine I’m taking, but still. And so I have to ask someone, like my husband or something, ‘did you hear that?’ or ‘did you see that?’"

Another person in the class asks Jevne if it would be helpful to ask her name as a way to bring her back to reality. Too abstract, says Jevne. Better to ask her about something tangible and nearby.

"Something like, believe it or not, my glass of water. That can be my landing place," She says.

The first responders, mostly state troopers, seem engaged in these exercises. They’re into it, even. In one classroom, after everyone agrees that two officers handled a scenario particularly well, the officers trade fist-bumps with their classmates as they retake their seats.

The instructor, Sue Allen-Samuel, tells me it wasn’t like that at the start of the training.

"I think we had to get over a little hump of ‘that’s not practical out in the field,’" says Allen-Samuel. "But I think we resonated with them. We chose our speakers really carefully, that they weren’t just experts in the field but they were experts also in speaking the language that the responders understand."

After the role-playing exercises wrap up, the weeklong training concludes with a short graduation ceremony.

These first responders represent New Hampshire’s first class. As the certificates were being handed out, and the group photos were being snapped, there was a lot of talk about how they marked the beginning of a cultural change in how first responders view mental illness. That notion seemed to be taking hold around the room.

Afterwards I spoke with Chris Remillard, who’s been with the Dunbarton Police Department for nine years. He called it the best training he’s ever been to. He said the role-playing scenarios had him thinking about many of the real-life calls he’s gone out on.

"I think every police officer, EMT who was in the class can probably think back to a call or an incident that they had and kinda the lightbulbs are going off now," says Remillard, "that maybe this person was having a hard time with this or that, now that we’ve learned a lot about a lot of different illnesses and disorders and become more aware of that."

Remillard says for him the big takeaway was to try and approach these situations with compassion.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.

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