de-escalation training

Why We Must Understand Before We Judge

mental-health-disorders

This is what my head looks like during training.

Today I’m in Hinkley, Minnesota, at Grand Casino with the Barbara Schneider Foundation’s Mental Health Crisis Response Institute for the Mid-America Regional Conference of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators performing in verbal de-escalation (CIT) training scenarios.

Yeah, it’s a mouthful so I’ll keep this short appropriately-long.

However, if you want to learn more about what CIT training is click here to read a very dry explanation.

Or simply read on: it’ll be more interesting.

Okay, so one component of CIT training is live role-playing exercises.

You guessed it, that’s where I come in.

Actors receive a real* scenario of an individual. And the scenario is just that: a general outline stating what’s happening with the character.

For instance, today I’m playing a bipolar character who’s creating a disturbance on a city street. That’s my scenario.

In the past I’ve portrayed individuals experiencing:

  • hyper-vigilance
  • delusions
  • hallucinations
  • aggression
  • irritability
  • anger
  • anxiety
  • paranoia
  • depression
  • suicidal ideation
  • PTSD
  • drug withdrawal
  • drug dependency
  • med withdrawal
  • alcoholism
  • self-mutilation

hello my name is mental illness
Because mental health crises are exhausting, so too is portraying an individual in crisis.

How do I prepare? Plenty of water, a big breakfast, and more details to be shared for another day.

Regardless of how exhausting playing someone with mental illness is, the job is still Acting 101:

  • Develop a backstory/flesh the character out
  • Present signs & symptoms (emotional/psychological/behavioral) accurately
  • Be as realistic as possible.

Oftentimes “realistically as possible” involves saying mean things at whomever is trying de-escalate the situation. Which, periodically, leads the participants in the room to comment on what an asshole I am…

…and this mindset occasionally leads the participant to “poke the bear” and do something like this:

And when the participants say or do things that make the situation worse: things escalate. Any trust or rapport is washed away and the character reacts accordingly. It’s not** pleasant to sting the participants, but it’s what I’m trained to do.

What got me thinking about this was last week’s training with the Minneapolis Police Department. In the scenario my character was hyper-vigilant with no prior mental health diagnosis and for no apparent reason.

When the coach asked participants what they thought was going on with the character a number of them responded, “Nothing. He’s just an asshole. He’s a prick to who hates cops.”

Now during the first few years part of me took those comments personally, the other half took them as compliments. As I’ve gotten more experienced as a crisis actor/teacher/trainer, it doesn’t bother me if they call my character an asshole.

What bothers me is if they’re not asking why the character is behaving like an asshole. What’s really going on with this person? And in order for that process to happen participants need to defer judgement.

Unfortunately, deferring judgement is hard and judging is easy. Heck, judging can even be fun! That’s why Katie and I watch The Bachelor! (You were so enjoyable to judge, Olivia!)


via GIPHY

For a small number of participants the judgement process happens long before they even enter the classroom! They’ve already decided crisis intervention team/de-escalation training is a joke. Or that CIT training takes away the ability for them to do their job.

What I wish those officers realize is that CIT training adds another tool to their belt. If that’s their mindset they’re able to participate in the process instead of judge*** it.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t get it though.

In high school I thought Mr. Rosholt’s**** Algebra II class was a complete waste of time. Because I decided imaginary numbers were useless and not relevant to actors, I didn’t learn anything.

Hence: why I don’t understand algebra.

It’s a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. Thanks to a poor attitude learning and skill building are next to impossible. But I digress…

a-empathy-words

All the clues and hints my character was dropping for the MPD weren’t picked up on because the officers passed judgement. In 60 seconds they decided I’m not a threat to myself or others, but I am an asshole.

And I don’t blame police officers for rushing to judgement; cops got a lot on their plate! Police officers work in a high-stress life-threatening environment everyday. Now add public scrutiny to the mix and thrust them into no-win scenarios*****. How do you think you’d do as a police officer?

With that said, I do expect more from law enforcement. Police officers are Society’s guardians. They have great power and a responsibility to use that power appropriately.

Yes, they’re human and make mistakes; but it’s also why this training is so imperative. To reduce those mistakes and connect on a compassionate a human level******.

As an actor in the scenario, I know how the character is behaving like an asshole. However, I know something the participants don’t know…yet. (Most actors already know the following.)

Each of my characters has either: some thing that incited the incident causing the character pain OR a very clear, relatable, human quality participants (and myself) will be compelled to empathize with.

It’s the payoff in the scene.

Usually — and especially last week with the Minneapolis PD — the “reveal” changes everyone’s perspective on the character.

And it happened last week. You could feel the energy in the room change. The character wasn’t just some asshole anymore.

It only happened though after the trust was built and a rapport was established. That’s when the character opened up. The officer(s) in the scene was quiet. He listened. He gave space for the character to speak.

We learned why the character was doing what he was doing. Why he was hyper-vigilant. Why he felt shame. Why he was taking it out on himself.

That’s when “the asshole” became a human being again. That’s why we must understand before we judge.

The character was de-escalated. The scenario was over.

And I was exhausted.


At the end of particularly difficult scenarios I like to say two things: “I’m sorry. And. Thank you.”

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry for all the swearing and yelling my character did. I’m sorry for the horrible things my character said and that you had to listen to. I’m sorry if something the character said upset you. I’m sorry if things got too real. I’m sorry you have to regularly see the worst of society.

And.

Thank you.

Thank you for being here. Thank you for actively participating in the process. Thank you for trying something new and difficult and different. Thank you for being vulnerable. Thank you for taking all you’ve learned and applying it in the field. Thank you for taking care of the people who cross your path. Thank you for potentially one day helping one of my friends or family in crisis. Thank you for your strength and courage. Thank you for the work you do.

From the bottom of my heart.

Michael


* = I’m not sure what kind of scenarios other CIT training companies provide their actors. With exception given to clients requesting customized scenarios, all of the scenarios the Barbara Schneider Foundation’s Mental Health Crisis Response Institute employs are based on actual events and real people.

** = Okay, sometimes it’s pleasant.

*** = Judging is easier than allowing yourself to be vulnerable.

**** = Mr. Rosholt, if you’re reading this, I still believe imaginary numbers are completely useless to me professionally. However, as I’m using imaginary numbers in the example above, let’s call it a draw. Thanks for arguing with me in class and your passion for mathematics. If neither of us were so passionate in our beliefs, I doubt I would’ve remembered the exchange. Thanks again, Mr. Rosholt.

***** = More on why this is true next week.

****** = If there are any officers or skeptics reading, please know the number one concern in CIT training is officer safety. Don’t allow flowery language to dilute the importance of this training. (I also know that the longer you’re on the job the more likely you’ll encounter the worst of humanity. Thank you for the work you do, the things you’re brave enough to encounter and endure, and the burdens you bear. I mean no disrespect when I remind you: mental health crises and mental illness aren’t crimes. Individuals in crisis and those living with mental illness deserve and need the compassionate help of Society’s guardians. We put our faith in you.)