By Brandi Makuski
The Stevens Point Police Department last week was recognized for its work in mental health awareness.
The department on Sept. 12 received the 2015 Providing Hope Award just prior to the start of the Walk for Hope- an annual 5K walk designed to promote suicide awareness and prevention.
The event was sponsored by the Suicide Prevention & Mental Health Awareness Coalition of Portage County.
The department was recognized because of its dedication to a heightened awareness of mental health and suicide issues within the community, according to Michelle Nelson, the coalition chair who is also a social worker at Ministry Health.
Nelson called the department’s efforts “pioneering…an inspiration to other law enforcement entities.”
“The dedication to this essential training is evident in their care and effort toward each individual they encounter in our community,” Nelson said. “It’s because of their forward-thinking that our mental health community can promote a community aware of mental health, and remove the stigma that has been attached to it.”
The department has a long history of mental health awareness training among officers. Former Police Chief Kevin Ruder was passionate about addressing the issue- particularly as it pertained to military veterans- and it is an issue that’s still close to the entire department.
Interim Police Chief Marty Skibba said the department began to require crisis intervention training, also known as CIT, in 2005.
“[The training] helps our officers address those critical situations,” Skibba said. “Often times when an officer is responding to a call, they’re involved in a very low point in a person’s life and it’s important to understand how to handle each situation professionally, but also with compassion.”
Skibba said none of the training would be possible without support from the community and the City Council, which approved the initial funding for officer training classes a decade ago. The department also seeks outside funding sources and grants for the training whenever possible.
“Requiring crisis intervention training of every officer puts in place a standard whereby we treat everyone with a level of respect we in turn would expect,” Skibba added.
The department’s first-ever CIT Officer, Kristy Ahrens, said the training helps the department make contacts within the community, helping officers connect resources with those in need as soon as possible.
“All the officers keep me posted on the different cases coming up, and potential issues coming up, so it helps me contact the appropriate agency,” Ahrens said. “So I would say the communication process has helped the community as a whole.”
Ahrens also said no process is perfect, but crisis intervention works best when residents with concerns speak up, and Nelson agrees.
“We want to relay the message that mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about,” she said. “But it is important to reach out for help.”
For more information on mental health and suicide prevention, Ahrens can be reached at (715) 346-1500. Suicide prevention information can be found at www.suicidepreventionportagecounty.org.