June 22, 2020

By Sam Cochran

Everyone remembers their first NAMI story. As a storyteller, I have spent many years both sharing and collecting NAMI stories as I traveled around the country promoting the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) program. These stories propelled my understanding of CIT and what we have been trying to achieve through this program — to improve police response to those with mental illness — and storytelling is also how I share this critical and lifesaving program nationwide.

My NAMI Awakening

My first NAMI story begins very similarly to one Charles Dickens once wrote: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” In 1980s Memphis, it was the “worst of times” for people with mental illness and their families. Crisis responses and services were often unkind and unjust. When officers tragically shot and killed a young man during a mental health crisis, it ignited an unstoppable movement. As the story goes, through the leadership of Ann Dino and Helen Adamo (both NAMI leaders), the city of Memphis became the birthplace of CIT.

As a Uniform Patrol Lieutenant in 1988, I was given orders by my chief to work with NAMI to make CIT a success in Memphis. I didn’t know what NAMI was, but before I had a chance to even call them, people from NAMI called me and even came by to visit. They brought me pamphlets and other reading materials and invited me to my first NAMI meeting.

It was at this meeting where I had my “NAMI awakening,” a moment where I began to understand the true power of NAMI’s voice in creating change. As I arrived at the meeting, the people I met gave me hugs, something I have come to expect from NAMI. As I quietly observed Betty Chapman (the newly elected president of NAMI Memphis at the time) answer questions from meeting participants, someone asked, “How did you know so much about the police to start CIT?”

Her reply, for me, is what placed NAMI as an essential part of any CIT initiative. Betty replied: “I don’t know a lot about police — oh, I see them on TV and going into the precinct — but I don’t know what they do in there. But there are some things that I do know: I know what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s kind and unkind, and that’s all I need to know.” CIT is many things, but at its core, it’s about doing what’s right and kind for people with mental illness and their families. NAMI members bring this to life with their voices and stories.

The Power of a NAMI Story

Stories are a critical part of the planning, building and sustaining of CIT. They inspire leaders to establish these programs and motivate communities to continue the work of CIT. Stories connect police officers to the goal of CIT, and to the people affected by it.

In many CIT trainings, NAMI volunteers share their personal accounts and reflections about what it’s like to have mental illness, and in many cases what it’s like to have a law enforcement officer respond when they are experiencing a mental health crisis. Many officers who have received CIT training will say that this is the best and most crucial part of CIT. It begins a dialogue that helps create understanding between officers and people with mental illness. This understanding leads to a sense of responsibility to do “what is right and what is kind,” even if that means going beyond the call of duty.

The responsibility and connection between officers and people with mental illness creates hope. Many years ago I was attending a CIT training class, and one of the senior CIT officers commented, “My consumers like it when I go by to visit them to see how things are going.” Years later, while attending a dinner in a different part of the country, a mental health advocate shared the words of someone from a meeting: “I like it when my CIT officer comes and visits to see how I am doing.” The word “my” sticks out to me in both of these instances because it shows a sense of ownership and responsibility for each other — a relationship founded on knowing someone’s story.

NAMI stories are the guiding stars of CIT. Whether it is through sharing personal experiences during meetings or volunteers presenting stories during training, they breathe life into the program — thus, CIT becomes more personal. The stories help make the point clear: “We know what’s right and what’s wrong, and what’s kind and what’s unkind. That’s all we need to know.”

Major Sam Cochran (Ret.) is a veteran of 34 years of the Memphis Police Department and the Co-Chairman of CIT International’s Board of Directors. He is also the namesake of the NAMI Sam Cochran award.

This piece was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Advocate. 

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