New wristband program designed to help York County police identify mental health needs

Harper Ho
York Dispatch
York-Adams Counties National Alliance on Mental Illness staff distributing crisis intervention wristbands at York Area Regional Police Department building. Thursday May 6, 2021.

York County officials kicked off May Mental Health Awareness Month by adopting a program to use wristbands to help police better identify people with mental health concerns — and the county says it's the first of its kind in Pennsylvania.

York County's Crisis Intervention Team, in partnership with the advocacy group National Alliance on Mental Illness for York and Adams Counties, introduced the program Thursday morning at the York Area Regional Police Department building.

The purpose of the wristbands — which say CIT and are meant to be worn by police officers trained in crisis intervention and individuals with mental health conditions — is to help law enforcement quickly identify who they're dealing with, said Katherine Gruver, the team coordinator.

"It's just more of bringing that awareness — that identification — that when officers get on scene, they understand what is going on so they know how to approach it safely with that individual and themselves," Gruver said. "Our hope is that it's going to help the officer and that individual when they're engaging to have a successful crisis resolution."

A total of 5,000 wristbands were purchased through funding from community partners, said Desiree Irvin, executive director of the local NAMI chapter, which will be delivering the wristbands to other police departments and distribution sites at that include WellSpan York Hospital and UPMC.

"It helps the officer when responding to a 911 call to be able to say, 'I am working with a person here that has a mental health condition,"' Irvin said. "That person with the mental health condition also sees that CIT wristband on the officer and they know." 

"There's an instant bond that is created by seeing these bracelets," which helps de-escalate the situation, Irvin said, adding that the organization has seen positive results with officers and individuals wearing the wristbands. The program has been used in Georgia.

Spring Garden Township Police Chief George Swartz said officers don't always know they're interacting with a mental health patient when responding because a lot of times they have very little information other than somebody is being disorderly. Thursday May 6, 2021.

York County implemented its Crisis Intervention Team in 2010, and more than 250 officers and first responders have since been trained to help guide interactions between themselves and people living with mental health conditions in a crisis situation, according to a county news release. 

Police departments can invest in technology or equipment, but the training and the resources provided by York County's crisis intervention program has been an investment in personnel, said York Area Regional Police Chief Tim Damon.

"Many times, we're interacting with the same individuals experiencing the same concerns," Damon said. "Police departments are not equipped to get them the necessary resources that they need. It is not within our purview of what we do. We're not experienced in the mental health side of the business. So this is a great pilot for us. Providing these bracelets will assist the officers in identifying individuals more quickly."

Statistics show 1 in 5 people had a mental health condition before the pandemic, but that number has jumped since the COVID-19 outbreak began, Irvin said. The increase is also happening in York County, the experts say.

"We have seen an increase in our health systems and with police interacting with individuals because of the pandemic," Gruver said. She added that officials are dealing with a whole host of situations, from suicide attempts or threats to psychosis in individuals who are unable to get the medications they need.

This wristband program is an example of York County taking initiative to address mental concerns and stigmas, Gruver said. The program was constructed from collaboration between several York County departments, including police, courts and mental health care providers.

"We have been always looking at different ways of how can we improve this program, how can we help the community and help officers, so when they get on the scene, and when someone's calling for a loved one — we can understand what's going on and we know how to respond," Gruver said. "At the end of the day, we want these individuals to get help."

To get a wristband, call NAMI at 717-848-3784.