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SD Police Respond To More 911 Suicide Calls

Audio

Aired 9/5/11

San Diego Police say they are responding to a growing number of people in psychiatric distress, some threatening to kill themselves.

— Last month, police responded to a 911 call from a 54-year-old man threatening to jump from the Coronado bridge.

The man motioned as if to pull a weapon from his pocket, and was killed when three California Highway Patrol officers opened fire. It’s called "suicide by cop."

It is just one example of the thousands of mental health crisis calls police respond to every year.

San Diego Police say they are responding to an increased number of 911 calls involving suicidal people and individuals with mental health problems. The calls have been steadily increasing for the past four years.

Last year police responded to more than 10,800 such calls, and predict this year's total will be closer to 12,000.

Assistant Police Chief Boyd Long suspects there are many reasons for the increase, but the bad economy may be the most common underlying factor.

"The economy is troubling. The economy is causing many people to relocate and co-locate their families and sometimes when families are co-located again together there is mental illness in family. It's brought back into a home and I think that has a potential for driving catastrophic problems,” Long said.

John Reese is one of several officers in the San Diego police department trained to work on the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team (PERT).

He rides with a mental health expert and responds to suicide calls and calls from people in psychiatric distress.

“My role is to make it safe. Make sure the person doesn’t have any weapons,” Reese said.

Despite the increase in crisis calls to police, San Diego County's Access and Crisis line has not seen an increase in calls for help. The service receives between 7,000 and 8,000 calls every month. That number has changed very little over the past few years.

“I know there’s been comment in the community that they feel there is more crisis; it hasn’t been reflected in the numbers with the access in crisis line,” said Alfredo Aguirre, mental health director for San Diego County Health and Human Services.

This summer, the murder-suicides of four San Diego families brought attention to the issue.

However, the number of suicides across the county has not increased in the past few years. The numbers are in fact down compared to 10 years ago.

County officials suspect police may be responding to the most desperate situations.

“And that level of desperation perhaps is something that becomes a 911 call as opposed to a family seeing it happening, being proactive and calling the access in crisis line,” Aguirre said.

National suicide prevention week begins Sunday, and SDPD is launching a "call before crisis" campaign.

“I guess the message I would like to get out is it's important for the public to know there are a variety of resources out there before the police can be called,” Long said.

The county is also hosting a series of training sessions to help people identify warning signs of suicide, know how to offer hope, and where to get help.

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