By Katie Demeria
Carol Schott said that over the last several years her work has been aimed at reducing mental health stigmas in the community. Earlier this week, the Virginia Crisis Intervention Team Coalition honored her for her efforts.
Schott is a CIT trainer and course director with Northwestern Community Services. She trains law enforcement and works with local correctional facilities in order to help officers understand how to de-escalate a situation involving a mentally ill individual.
She was named the Virginia CIT Behavioral Health Provider of the Year at the coalition's third annual conference in Richmond on May 20.
Northwestern's program in correctional facilities started in 2007, Schott said. Since then, she and her team have worked to spread education to officers and increase communication between the mental health organization and law enforcement.
"It's all about techniques to use for de-escalating situations and preventing somebody from getting hurt," Schott said. "It's actually to help an officer make a decision: does this person need to be incarcerated or do they need to be hospitalized?"
Schott trains officers so they recognize the signs of a mental health episode and know the right things to ask.
If an individual is exhibiting unusual behavior, for example, officers are trained to assess the situation. Someone may be pacing around a park, and an officer, rather than taking a harsh position that may work in other situations, could be trained to walk with the individual and learn about the problem.
In that conversation, Schott suggested, they could learn that the individual cannot pay his medical bills and stopped taking medications. In that case, the officer can escort the individual to the hospital -- allowing him to get the help needed rather than assuming he is in the wrong.
Schott said many issues the mentally ill are facing come from social stigmatization.
"The stigmatization is just horrendous. What the mentally ill go through -- they're embarrassed to get their medication, and now it's taken a long time to get benefits for the mentally ill, so they don't have insurance, they don't have a way to see a psychiatrist," she said.
"My goal is that someday somebody can say 'I have a mental illness' and they won't be looked at like they're totally different from the rest of the population," she continued.
Schott also works with the jails themselves, making sure all inmates who are also Northwestern's clients have access to their medication.
If there is a crisis at the facility and the inmate is a client, Schott said, she will be called to speak to him, de-escalating the situation.
She said, eventually, she hopes the program may include other first responders as well, such as firefighters, emergency response technicians and staff in emergency rooms.
She knows the techniques work, she added, not only because they have been proven through large-scale studies, but because she has heard from individuals she trained who used one of her suggestions and prevented a situation from getting out of control.
Ultimately, she said she hopes her work will help reduce stigmatization and allow the mentally ill to function without shame.
"A mentally ill person can be a productive and employed person in the community with the right medication and the right treatment," she said. "They can't help that they have the illness, so I want them to get the help and respect they deserve."
Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org