April 12, 2016

By Nancy Pizzo Boucher


A few months ago, I was invited to speak as part of a NAMI educational session to a new group of about 50 cadets at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. I talked about our family’s experience in calling 911 for help with a mental health emergency with our son—specifically what helped and what hindered support. I wanted to communicate the critical importance of understanding that aggressive behaviors from those experiencing a mental health emergency are defensive, not offensive. Although aggressive defensive behavior and aggressive offensive behavior may look the same, their source is different, and so is the helpful response that is needed.

In situations of mental health distress, defensive behavior often originates in fear of real or perceived danger fueled by depression, anxiety, paranoia or delusions. Offensive behavior is usually planned, predatory and after some particular gain or goal. A successful outcome in responding to a call for help with a mental health emergency requires knowledge about that distinction and training in how best to approach someone in a defensive mode.

I began my talk with a true story about my first-born son Ezra’s recent encounter with a skunk—which earned him the nickname of “the skunk whisperer.”

My son, his wife and their two boys live in rural Maine. They have one vehicle, which they use to juggle a lot of activities. They home school our grandsons, which involves trips into the city for music jamming sessions, music lessons, language lessons, book clubs at the public library, etc. On this day, my son was heading to a carpentry job. My daughter-in-law, Christina, was driving him to work while the boys were at home minding the dogs and the household. Roads in their area are not backed up with traffic. As Ez and Christina rounded a bend in the road, they saw a skunk crossing in daylight with a glass jar stuck over its head.

Ez asked Christina to stop, saying, “I want to try to help him,” and got out of the car. He slowly approached the skunk with his hand outstretched, saying quietly, “I want to try to help you. Let me help you.” He used few words and he used them repetitively. This calm approach worked, and the skunk walked over to him. Trust had been established.

At first Ezra tried to pull the jar off the skunk’s head with no luck. He repeated comforting words. The skunk came back toward him. This time Ezra put his hand on the skunk’s back, lifted him and tried to shake the jar off his head. He ended up dropping the skunk, and both Ez and the skunk scuttled back a few feet. The skunk began to raise his tail slowly but then lowered it. He never used his protective weaponry on Ezra!

Once more Ez told the skunk that he was there to help. Then he called to Christina to bring him a hammer. He gently hammered at the jar. The jar came off completely. The skunk went on his way, and my son continued on his way to work.

Applying lessons from this story could result in better outcomes when police are called to assist with someone who is experiencing a mental health crises. What is needed from responders is what Ez offered to the skunk:

  1. Reassurance that you are there to help
  2. Words of comfort spoken repetitively, clearly and calmly
  3. Space
  4. Patience to establish trust

If you are calling for help for a loved one, tell the dispatcher clearly that this is a mental health emergency. Request CIT-trained officers or mental health liaison officers as available. Request that they avoid using sirens and lights because the added stimuli can trigger or worsen symptoms and could increase the anxiety, fear or paranoia that your loved one may be experiencing.

The job of a police officer is complex. They should be given the training that they need to be ready to respond effectively to calls for help with mental health emergencies.

To all those who have chosen to serve and to protect, may the skunk whisperer be with you.

Nancy Pizzo Boucher is a dedicated advocate for those dealing with mental illness and works to promote understanding of a person-first approach to healing. She is the author of two books based on her family’s experiences: Getting My Night Vision and Replanting Lives Uprooted By Mental Illness: a practical guide for families.

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