Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: Why West Virginia needs CIT

by Hollis Lewis

There are bipartisan efforts to increase West Virginia’s economic development. These efforts were reflected by our politicians, educators and business leaders successfully persuading LG, an international corporation, to bring its operations to West Virginia. While investing in our infrastructure, access to the internet or downtown areas — as is the case of Charleston and Wheeling — is necessary, our most significant investment must be our citizens. With that, we must develop better methodologies in how we handle West Virginia’s preeminent issues, which are behavioral health and substance use disorders (SUD).

So, what is CIT, and how will it add to improving West Virginia’s economic viability? CIT stands for Crisis Intervention Teams. CIT programs strive to strengthen our collective response and provide the foundation to promote community and statewide solutions to assist individuals in crisis. Collaborations are formed between mental health professionals, law enforcement, persons with lived experience, first responders and mobile crisis response teams to build a continuum of services. Personnel from these agencies complete a 40-hour training in which participants learn how to identify, work more compassionately with and provide services to those in crisis. CIT increases the chance of an appropriate health care referral while diverting some from the criminal justice system.

CIT was developed in Memphis, Tenn., during the late 1980s, following an incident in which an officer-involved shooting resulted in the death of a man who had a history of mental illness. To quell rising tensions over the shooting, the mayor of Memphis turned to local advocates from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and enlisted police, mental health professionals, educators, hospital administrators and church officials to seek a new approach to working with persons with mental illness in crisis. From these efforts in Memphis, CIT was formed.

Implementing CIT is vital to West Virginia, considering our state is at the heart of a variety of crises simultaneously. According to reports, West Virginia ranks highest for drug use and overdose deaths nationally and in the top 10 states suffering from mental illness.

Regarding criminal justice, West Virginia outpaces the national average in the percentage of the population incarcerated. Many of our currently or recently incarcerated population have an underlying issue of SUD. In addition, West Virginia is ranked 10th in the nation for its suicide rate and has a poverty rate of 15.80%, ranking as the fourth-poorest state in America.

While CIT alone cannot solve the myriad problems West Virginia faces, it can support those tasked with frequently assisting those in crisis, namely law enforcement. CIT is not designed to absolve suspects of criminal liability but attempts to differentiate between emergency and non-emergency calls. CIT trained officers are better prepared to mitigate and refer these issues to behavioral health professionals when possible. In addition, CIT allows officers to focus on emergency and criminal incidents while providing them with improved methods of safely de-escalating and preventing hazardous crises.

CIT raises awareness and promotes partnerships amongst community members to form a continuum of services, which could lead to sustainable changes. Studies indicate that if persons suffering from SUD can be referred to treatment within their initial contact with law enforcement, their chances for a successful recovery are improved. Similarly, CIT provides first responders and police with timely assistance from mental health professionals. The trauma people experience during a crisis may be reduced, and a solution-driven approach will be employed.

First Choice Services, West Virginia CIT Collaborative, will assist in coordinating the CIT continuum by forming a cohesive working relationship among agencies while streamlining services and information. CIT promotes community safety and affords behavioral health professionals and peer support specialists a direct role in non-emergency incidents. An investment in CIT across the state is an investment in the quality of our communities, cities, law enforcement and, most importantly, our citizens.

Hollis Lewis is the delegate for West Virginia’s 57th District, the WV CIT project director for First Choice Services and an adjunct professor of criminal justice at West Virginia State University.