Von Luft: It’s time to ‘arm’ social workers


For the past few years, I have noticed a dramatic increase in the number of mental health crisis calls being responded to by police officers.

More police departments are helping the mentally ill on the street and in people’s homes.

There is no argument the world has become more complicated, fast-paced and more stressed than ever.

Some experts say the rates of depressive disorders, anxiety disorders and other illnesses like bipolar disorder are occurring at epidemic levels.

Families and police officers have become not only the first responders, but also the only responders.  County and state social services divisions have been drastically cut and were never prepared to handle the need.

Even when a social worker does respond to a house to conduct a welfare check on someone in crisis, they call police for protection.

The problem is only getting worse.

So what does a family do when their schizophrenic son is out of control not taking his medication and destroying the house, or their bipolar daughter is threatening suicide, or the teenage son has a psychotic episode?

They call the police.

Officers are expected to not only know how to quickly defuse the situation so no one gets hurt, but they are also expected to understand the disorder the person is suffering from, know the names of the medications they need and what they do for the person, and then know what immediate resources are available to help.

It is a lot for an officer to know and often families expect them to know it all.

Police departments have responded to this by getting their officers more training in mental health, communication skills and resources available.

In my opinion, it’s not enough.  It is a band-aid, not a comprehensive approach to community mental health.  A drastically different approach is needed if we want to get people the help they need and want to keep our communities safe.

This approach will probably start with what I call armed social workers.

What I mean by armed social workers is specially trained and task-focused teams of police officers that blend the work of police officer and social worker.

We need officers who are trained in clinical psychology and therapy skills who not only respond to the crisis, but also proactively get involved in long-term care.

Let’s start talking with these families when the crisis is not happening, get to know them and see what their needs are.  By understanding the problem on this level, we can intervene as the signs of a crisis are starting, and be the resource families so desperately need on an ongoing basis.

This would possibly prevent forced hospitalizations, criminal charges and perhaps a reduction in confrontations that lead to injuries or worse.

Officers dedicated to these types of specialized teams can change the paradigm of law enforcement’s response to the mentally ill.

The time for the “armed social worker” is here and the conversation needs to start quickly as we are already behind the curve.  Police Departments need to admit that this is their problem to handle because no one else is willing or capable.

Kevin Von Luft is a columnist for Behind the Badge OC. He is a 16-year law enforcement veteran. Von Luft also holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology and helps police officers and their families as a marriage and family therapist. He can be reached at kevinvonluft@preparetochange.com