It’s Time the Behavioral Health Field Expand Their Definition of Lived Experience

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In anticipation of 988—the three-digit number for mental health, substance use, and suicidal crisis telecom companies must make live by July 16, 2022—communities throughout the United States are examining their crisis systems. “They want to ensure there are rapid and appropriate responses in place that match people’s needs,” says Amy Watson, Ph.D., professor of social work in the Helen Bader School of Social Welfare at the University of Wisconsin. She’s also the president of CIT International. The Crisis Intervention Team model is a first-responder, police-based crisis intervention designed to reduce the role of law enforcement in behavioral health crisis response. 

However, as leaders tighten their lens on behavioral health and quality of life crises in their community, there’s a glaring concern they must also simultaneously address: workforce shortages. Dr. Watson says the solution isn’t simply to increase staff in existing positions but rather to develop a community behavioral health crisis responder role. “That means identifying the skills needed to best resolve crises,” she notes, “and make sure there’s an accessible career path for people with a diversity of lived experience.” 

In behavioral health, the term “lived experience” is often synonymous with people who have faced mental health or substance use challenges. “That’s a vital but narrow perspective,” says Dr. Watson. “There are many additional experiences—like being from a disadvantaged or marginalized population—that would be valuable to this role and can help provide a better, more culturally competent crisis response.” This includes the need for crisis responders who are Black, Hispanic, American Indian, have been incarcerated, experienced houselessness, identity as LGBTQ, are veterans, or have developmental disabilities.

Non-law enforcement responses to behavioral health and quality of life concerns—like the need for food and shelter—are critical for diverting people from the emergency department and jail. And because interactions are with civilian responders and not police, it can be far safer for people in crisis, especially among marginalized populations at risk of a police interaction turning deadly. Of people killed in the United States by a police officer in the line of duty since January 1, 2015, 24% were Black, 16% were Hispanic, and 23% were identified as having a mental illness. 

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