Part two of a four-part series looking at the impact of calls from the mentally ill on public safety resources.
In her 10 years as a dispatcher, Amy Webber has seen the call load from people who are mentally ill increase significantly.
In her early days working for Wasco County’s 911 Communications Center, which serves all of Wasco County, she said there was a handful of “regulars” who called. Dispatchers knew their names, and how to deal with them in ways that could quickly de-escalate them.
Now, the calls come from people they don’t always know, and there’s so many of them it’s “to the point where it feels like it’s the bulk of our calls.”
Some people call so many times in a shift that not every call is logged. Only significant information that might help responding officers is logged. But the logs themselves have gotten more detailed as it became clear the amount of calls was increasing and the more information that was available, the safer it was for everyone involved, Webber said.
Webber worked a shift in early May when a mentally ill woman in crisis called the dispatch center more than 20 times, she estimated. Not all the calls were logged. “If we sent an officer on every one of those calls, they would do nothing else,” Webber said.
Joe Davitt, 911 operations manager, conservatively estimated the woman calls about 100 times a year.
Webber and dispatcher Jennifer Spino took a week-long class specifically for dispatchers about dealing with people experiencing interpersonal crisis.
She learned about how mental illness, particularly in small towns with fewer resources, follows a cycle. A person goes into crisis, might get arrested or into treatment and get leveled out with medication and family support, then something goes wrong—they lose their meds, or family support, or their home—and they go back into crisis.
Indeed, the woman who called so much in May was absent from the police logs for many weeks, but recently began calling again.
Webber recently took a call from her where the woman reported “dinosaurs were eating her knees.”
When she takes a call from someone in crisis, Webber works to de-escalate the caller herself. Sometimes that can take 5-10 minutes, and sometimes dispatchers don’t have the time for it.
“Some of those calls it’s just a matter of letting them feel heard,” she said.
“They truly in that moment do believe that’s happening,” she said of their fantastical reports. “We know on our side of things it’s a result of delusions or illness or medication. We know on their end, they’re truly in crisis.”
It gets frustrating to be stuck on a phone call with someone in psychosis and then see a 911 call come in, Webber said. There are two dispatchers on duty, and a dispatcher tries not to disconnect a call with anybody, but sometimes it’s necessary.
If dispatchers are handling a major incident like a wildfire, and “in the middle of it all, [the woman who called in May so often] calls and tells me she has to talk to President Trump right now,” Webber will tell the woman she can’t talk right now.
If the caller is being abusive, or if the dispatcher determines it’s not an emergency, the dispatcher is allowed to hang up, but then “they do call back, and they’re that much more agitated, and we do have to start all over again.”
Dispatchers are the first point of contact for the mentally ill—“pick up the phone, call 911,” Webber said—and they deal with them far more than the police or mental health crisis workers.
“It’s hard to talk to somebody in mental health crisis when you’re not face to face,” Webber said.
In many cases, the caller ID system shows a phone number that dispatchers recognize so they know who the caller will be. But the frequent caller from May has multiple phones, and one of them doesn’t show what number is calling in, Webber said.
It’s draining to take the onslaught of calls from a person in crisis.
“When you’re doing that for phone call after phone call after phone call and you’re getting yelled at and cussed at and nothing you say seems to be the right thing, it can be emotionally taxing and you take turns with your partner,” Webber said.
“We want to help people. When nothing you say can satisfy the person who is calling you relentlessly, that’s a really emotionally exhausting place to be,” she said.
“That’s our whole point, ‘How can I get you help?’…and sometimes those offers of assistance, they don’t want them, or what they want I can’t provide. I can’t send the National Guard.”
The first rule for dispatchers is that they maintain their composure. They never share their frustration during a call, but they vent to each other when the call ends.
“We take really good care of each other when we’re having those nights,” Webber said. “And luckily training for people in law enforcement when dealing with mentally ill subjects is getting better all the time.”
She added, “I think we do a really good job here; we try to treat these people with compassion and dignity, and it’s not their fault that they’re going through what they’re going through.
“Once you understand that these feelings are very real and they feel very rational to them even though we know they’re not rational, the best thing we can do is treat them as professionally and with as much kindness as we can while still understanding there’s only so much we can do,” she said.