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Ali Siemianowski

Communication Specialist, National Council for Behavioral Health

The Power of Advocacy

June 10, 2016 | Education and Events | Comments
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This is the first article in the National Council’s series profiling the achievements of our 2016 Awards of Excellence honorees.

Across the country, local jails are not only over-crowded, but in some states have also become the largest behavioral health service providers. An estimated two million people living with mental illness and addictions reside in our country’s prison system. These individuals tend to stay in jail longer and are at higher risk for recidivism. New York City, our nation’s largest city, is especially hard hit—over 38 percent of the jail population are people with mental illness. And this trend is on the rise, despite an overall reduction in jail population.

Recognizing that the criminal justice system is the first point of contact for many in crisis, Steve Coe, CEO of Community Access in New York City, has spent over two decades studying police response to mental health care recipients in an effort to ensure that law enforcement has the tools they need to respond appropriately and reduce unnecessary incarceration.

Steve’s advocacy and leadership of the Communities for Crisis Intervention Teams (CCIT), a New York City-based coalition of 85 nonprofit and for-profit organizations, was instrumental to changes Mayor Bill de Blasio announced regarding behavioral health and the city’s criminal justice system. The action plan outlined funding to reduce unnecessary arrests and incarceration, including Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) police training. In 2015, the NYPD trained over 5,500 police officers in crisis intervention, better equipping law enforcement with the skills to respond to those in need.

The success came after years of direct advocacy with city and state policymakers. CCIT found strength in numbers and drew upon research and experiences from other US cities that had led similar reforms. Today, Steve and CCIT continue to advocate for additional police training and for a comprehensive system that can provide alternatives to hospitalization and incarceration.

Each of our communities, big or small, has heroes who are advocating for change to improve the lives of those living with mental illness and addiction. Earlier this week, Hill Day was one of our chances to come together. We are strength in numbers.