Every year millions of Americans suffer from a mental illness and, of those, 6 percent — 13.6 million — struggle daily with a serious mental illness. Individuals suffering from mental illness make up approximately 24 percent of the population in state prisons, a majority of whom are nonviolent offenders. People who suffer from mental illness and have been incarcerated are more likely than their fellow inmates to be victims of sexual and physical violence and are more likely to be without employment once released.

These statistics are daunting and should not be taken lightly by local and state governments. The need for change is evident. As a society it is imperative that we work together to protect our vulnerable populations.

In 1955, deinstitutionalization — the release of individuals from institutional care, as in psychiatric hospitals, to care in the community — began. This concept initiated the idea of community-based treatment and the relocation of America’s mentally ill. I would call it a failed attempt to provide the mentally ill with the most autonomous and least restrictive treatment measures.

Deinstitutionalization led to the shutdown of several inpatient psychiatric hospitals, thus setting the stage for the mental health crisis in our nation. Local hospitals today are not equipped with enough beds to provide treatment for all those in need of mental health care. This leaves the treatment of these people in the hands of their local communities, who also lack the resources needed to provide adequate support. The results of our past decisions are unacceptable and leave many of our mentally ill homeless and without essential medication and rehabilitative services.

Today, local law enforcement are generally the first responders to crises involving mentally ill individuals and many have never received formal training on how to handle psychiatric crises or emergencies. The typical result for the mentally ill in these circumstances is incarceration. For many, the initial arrest is the start to a lifelong cycle of cycling in and out of the criminal justice system, which again is usually due to nonviolent crimes.

The sentencing for many of these people is more rigid when compared with their counterparts’, often resulting in increased time served. This process makes it difficult if not impossible for these individuals to find the appropriate mental health treatments. As the Office of National Drug Control Policy reported, only about 40 percent of people with a mental illness in jail or prison stated that they had received treatment. Once released, a majority of these individuals will have remained untreated and will return to the same or similar situations they were in prior to incarceration. These are frightening facts that only further point to the need for change in how local law enforcement understands and responds to people suffering psychiatric crises.

In Maine, police receive no mandatory mental health training, even with the increasing rates of their involvement with mental health situations. Though a 40-hour training in Crisis Intervention Treatment is offered by NAMI Maine, it is not required and is unevenly completed across the state. Officers in the Portland Police Department, however, have all completed Crisis Intervention Treatment training. This increase of Crisis Intervention Treatment training has also been witnessed in the Sanford and Augusta police departments, but training completion varies from department to department.

With the call volume to local law enforcement involving citizens with mental illness increasing, it is intolerable that a mandate has yet to be put into place that requires Crisis Intervention Treatment training. With a potential boost in funding, Maine has a chance to make this critical change.

A bill, LD 534, addressing these issues has been proposed by state Rep. Richard Malaby, R-Hancock, and will be reviewed by the 127th Legislature. Malaby announced that the proposed bill will require 20 percent of officers in every department to complete a 40-hour training within a two-year time frame. The goal is to create awareness in cities where understanding how to deal with circumstances involving the mentally ill may be low or nonexistent.

As a society we have an obligation to ensure the safety and well-being of all of our people, and it is time to educate and train our law enforcement team on how to deal with people from their communities who are suffering from illnesses over which they have no control.

Alyssa Chauvette is a first-year graduate student in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine in Orono. She received her undergraduate degree in social work from UMaine and works as a graduate research assistant in the UMaine Office of Assessment.