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Local firefighters are gaining a better understanding of how to best handle a crisis situation involving those with mental health or substance abuse issues.
The three-day Crisis Intervention Team training at Fire Station 2 on Sugarloaf Road is the first for firefighters in Henderson County as well as within a 23-county area of Western North Carolina. The training also covers how best to handle situations involving someone with autism, dementia or an intellectual or developmental disability.
"We go on so many calls that involve mental illness or substance abuse," said Chief Joseph Vindigni of the Hendersonville Fire Department. "It's difficult sometimes to know how to interact with those patients. Having a class like this will enhance our ability to address those situations."
Vindigni asked about having his entire department undergo the training for managing these kinds of encounters after hearing Kristen Martin, executive director of Thrive, speak at a Vision Henderson County event in 2015. Thrive is an agency assisting those with mental illness, notably through its clubhouse program, which offers support for local men and women seeking fuller lives.
A weeklong CIT training has been presented to law enforcement officers over the past eight years, and many officers are already certified, according to Martin. Participation includes officers from Laurel Park, Fletcher and Hendersonville police departments, as well as personnel from the Sheriff's Office.
"It's really providing them the education they need to avoid confrontation, and to find out enough to be able to get (patients) the resources they need and hopefully avoid hospitalization," said Melissa Ledbetter, community education specialist at Smoky Mountain MCO.
The training takes place thanks to a partnership between Thrive, Smoky Mountain, Family Preservation Services and NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness).
Cindy Davis-Bryant, state director for Family Preservation Services, led a class in crisis intervention skills on Tuesday that addressed a range of considerations. Some of these included understanding the fight-or-flight response, how to be an active listener, how best to speak with someone with mental health issues and what the least threatening bodily stance to assume is, all while keeping safety in mind.
Davis-Bryant also talked about the importance of offering choices in a crisis situation. "All of us feel better if we feel like we have some control of what's going on, because if you're in crisis you are at the utmost of no control," she said. "For many, hospitals have a lot of negative connotations."
Tuesday's training included a lunchtime visit to the Thrive Clubhouse for a tour and interaction with two clubhouse members who shared stories of their journey with mental illness as well as their perspectives on personal interactions with emergency personnel.
The CIT training will also include segments on suicide risk factors and prevention, trauma and resilience, child and adolescent behavioral health and dementia and aging, some of these with role play learning activities.
The Smoky GERO team will lead the discussion on dementia and aging, which will feature an opportunity to feel what it's like to be someone with dementia, where firefighting staff can feel the sensory loss through dimmed lights and by wearing gloves.
"They do everything they can to simulate that experience," said Martin. "That is really powerful for all the participants."
Another simulation — of what it's like to hear voices in your head — is another experience that can have an impact on perspective, Martin said, noting that unlike the simulation, those who hear voices in their head often experience it 24 hours a day.
Also included in the CIT training is a testimony from a panel of individuals with mental health issues — the In Our Own Voice panel, organized by the Four Seasons chapter of NAMI.