Stories of mental illness help police understand how to help students

Helen Sneed and Ilene Gray share their mental health struggles with Austin ISD police officers (KXAN Photo)
Helen Sneed and Ilene Gray share their mental health struggles with Austin ISD police officers (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Police officers with the Austin Independent School District are getting some personal perspectives that could change the way they interact with students.

Monday launched the department’s week-long mental health training. This year it includes a line-up of speakers who have first hand experience with a variety of illnesses.

Ilene Gray described what the bad times were like living with depression, anxiety and mood disorders.

“I would sometimes get up and just bang on the walls and scream because I was just in such pain and such terror,” said Gray.

She also told the officers about the darkest day when she tried to commit suicide.

Next, Helen Sneed shared her story with officers starting with the list of conditions she’s been diagnosed with other the years.

“Bipolar, anorexia, bulimia, clinical depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder,” said Sneed.

Both women are doing much better now, and serve as volunteers with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

They understand officers have a difficult job and dealing with people who suffer with mental illness can be tricky.

“They don’t know what they’re seeing when they’re called to an emergency of some sort,” said Gray. “They don’t know — is this person mentally ill? They don’t know really what’s going on.”

Following a stay at the Austin State Hospital, Gray says she was arrested for assaulting a police officer during a state of panic.

“An officer — I’m sure he thought he was doing an okay thing trying to calm me down — just reached to me and put his hands on my shoulders,” said Gray. “And that just terrified me that this police officer was touching me, and I just pulled back and slugged him.”

Their stories hit home with officers like Kevin Wooden who worked in the state’s juvenile justice system prior to joining the AISD police force. He tries to not take a student’s behavior personal.

“Give that person some words of comfort to hopefully help the situation,” said Wooden.

Gray and Sneed say comfort and a caring heart can go a long way.

“Mainly it’s just showing kindness and not judgment and compassion and not anger or disgust or contempt,” said Sneed.

The mental health training continues for Austin ISD Police all week with scenario-based exercises on Friday putting what they learn to the test.

They will be covering the following topics:

  • Substance Abuse
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Homelessness
  • Developmental Disabilities and ADHD
  • Suicide Intervention

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