University of Wisconsin–Madison

Contacting the Police During a Mental Health Emergency

The police can do a number of things including welfare checks and transporting someone to a hospital. Remember, not everyone feels safe, comfortable, or is able to access all referral options. This may be particularly true when it comes to the police. As we have discussed, services are often made by and for people who are not marginalized. Some people with marginalized identities will feel cautious about using the police as a service. If the crisis line recommends involving the police, take time to assess your feelings around involving the police, as well as the feelings of the person you are supporting. As with all situations where there is immediate danger of suicide, think before you act. Talk through any concerns or fears with the crisis line and work together to develop a plan that is best for your peer.

When You Call the Police

The first step is to call the police by dialing 911. Calling 911 will connect you to a dispatch center, where you will talk to someone whose job it is to answer and coordinate responses to 911 calls. Depending on where you are in Madison, University of Wisconsin – Madison Police Department officers, Madison Police Department officers, or officers from Dane County or one of the other surrounding municipalities may respond to the call.

When you call 911, let dispatch know brief details about what is going on. This might include your peer’s recent mental health history if you know it and the current situation. Clearly state that this is a mental health crisis and that you are requesting a response from an officer with mental health training. After providing dispatch with this information, ask the person to repeat what you said back to you so that you know they understand that this is a mental health crisis. Dispatch may ask you to provide the address of your location during this conversation.

When the Police Arrive

Two police officers will typically respond to mental health-related calls. When they arrive, clearly state again that this is a mental health crisis and briefly share information about the situation. It may be difficult for you to stay calm, given the distress that your peer is in and depending on your relationship with the police. Yelling, getting too close to the officer, or blocking them from responding to your peer could jeopardize your safety and your ability to act as an advocate for your peer. The police will typically work to de-escalate the situation and help determine next-steps for your peer. They will respond in varying ways depending on the situation.

Depending on the situation, be aware that your peer may be physically “pat-down”, checked for weapons, and placed in handcuffs. They will likely be transported in the back of a police car when they are taken to a hospital. This does not mean that they are being arrested or taken to jail. This can be very scary and even traumatizing for your peer to experience and for you to witness.

Welfare Checks

Police also conduct welfare checks. Welfare checks occur when the police are informed that someone, a parent or family member, faculty, staff, or another student, is concerned about a person’s well-being. During welfare checks, police go to the residence of the person to ensure their well-being.

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