The other day, I was looking through a very helpful publication entitled “What To Do in a Psychiatric Crisis in Indiana,” published by NAMI Indiana. I read it before and mentioned it in a previous post entitled “What To Do in a Psychiatric Crisis,” but what struck me this time was the discussion of calling 911. If you call 911 to report a psychiatric crisis, the dispatcher is most likely to send the police, and NAMI cautions:

It is important to note that depending on the police officer involved and other contingencies, s/he may take your loved one to jail instead of to the emergency room. Be clear about what you want to have happen.

That’s excellent advice, but wouldn’t it be better if you called 911 to report a psychiatric crisis, and instead of just the police an ambulance arrived, too? After all, bipolar disorder is an illness, and ambulances have medications that can calm a person down. Also, wouldn’t someone who’s experiencing a major mood episode be more inclined to voluntarily go away in an ambulance than in a squad car? Wouldn’t it be less stigmatizing?

(Unfortunately, as my wife pointed out when I discussed this blog post with her, there’s no guarantee that the EMTs or the doctor who first sees you will give you something to “calm down.” They may refuse to give you anything, because they want the psychiatrist to see the symptoms firsthand for diagnostic purposes. That’s another topic for discussion that we’ll address in a later post.)

We’ve had the police involved twice during major manic episodes, and they handled the situation pretty well both times:

  • The first time, the officers took my wife to the emergency room, but the doctor refused to give her anything more than a mild sedative. She suffered more than necessary in the hours before she was admitted to the psychiatric treatment facility. As my wife pointed out, she already had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, so there was no reason to withhold treatment for diagnostic purposes.
  • The second time, the police called an ambulance, the EMTs drove her to the emergency room, and she was transferred to that hospital’s psychiatric treatment facility. There was still some delay in receiving treatment, but the delay was not as long.

Please share your experiences of having the police respond to a psychiatric crisis or your ideas of what an ideal response would look like. What happened? What do you think should have happened? Is there anything you would have done or said differently to try to change what happened?

Ambulance photo available from Shutterstock.