Once-homeless Man, Longmont Officials Offer Tips on Approaching Mentally Ill in Public

March 24, 2018

If you go

What: Mental Health First Aid training.

When: English classes 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. March 27 and April 3; Spanish classes 5 p.m.-9 p.m. April 3 and 10.

Where: St. Vrain Community Hub, 515 Coffman St. for English sessions; Longmont United Hospital, 1950 Mountain View Ave. for Spanish sessions.

Cost: Free.

More info: 303-651-8469, longmontcolorado.gov .

Crisis services

Colorado Crisis hotline: 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255.

24-hour walk-In crisis clinic: 3180 Airport Road, Boulder.

For a decade, Chaz Lanz experienced being looked at and talked to differently because of mental illness and homelessness.

For the last three years, though, he has been healthy, having kept his bipolar depression and former drug addictions at bay while making an RV home with his wife and 3-year-old son.

But he saw an opportunity this week on Facebook to educate a fellow Longmont resident with some lessons he learned while still using methamphetamine and heroin, suffering symptoms of bipolar disorder and living on the street.

Repeated encounters with a man she believes to have a mental illness outside her Longmont home led Angela Orlando to post in a Longmont neighborhood watch Facebook page Monday seeking advice as to how to safely engage him.

“Does anyone have information on the schizophrenic man with headphones that walks daily into downtown Longmont?” Orlando asked, explaining that she saw him walk by her house everyday and she usually avoids him when possible.

But Orlando said the man acted more erratically than normal Monday morning, claiming, “He yelled obscenities and curses, repeatedly calling me the b-word. ... He kept screaming when I ignored him and it really is not the best way to start off a day.”

Suggestions came quickly from Lanz — who is familiar with the man she described — to ignore the man and not call police to report his behavior, calling him, as did several other Facebook users, “totally harmless.”

“I thought how she went about it was great,” Lanz said in an interview. “She went to the community, and didn’t go straight to the police because she was scared. She wanted to know what’s normal for Longmont.”

Other advice offered to Orlando varied from reporting the man’s behavior to law enforcement to approaching him to engage in a conversation and perhaps see if she could help him somehow.

She took the direction from Lanz and those who echoed it, saying she would continue trying to avoid the man and stop short of calling police, but may report the behavior if it escalates.

“If it becomes more frequent I would report to have the incidences on file just in case something happened as it’s better keep on the safe side,” Orlando said. “While everyone should have the right to live freely, there also should be some limits in what is tolerated.”

‘No cut and dry answer’

Longmont police and mental health clinicians acknowledge there is no surefire method to distinguish who among the mentally ill seen in public due either to homelessness or their forays into the community is safe to speak with or offer help to from those who may pose a danger — or at least unpleasant treatment as Orlando experienced.

“Longmont should have something where if we have people like this in our city — I don’t want to label people either — but I would like people to be informed. We don’t need to be scared in life. We’re not here long enough to be scared of everybody,” Lanz said. “I just don’t want somebody to be put out because they are different.”

Motivation to call police about someone with a behavioral health issue may never come for one person and arrive immediately for another, said Mental Health First Aid instructor John Kellow and Officer Tash Petsas, who is currently initiating Longmont Police Department’s co-responder program that will send clinicians alongside police to calls involving high-risk mental health patients.

“I think the hard thing is there is no cut and dry answer to (when police should be called),” Kellow said. “The more insidious elements of mental illness are the symptoms we don’t see. Someone who is acting out or responding to some kind of psychiatric condition doesn’t need to be hospitalized or taken in necessarily. People feel the difference between uncomfortable and threatened. That’s the first thing to differentiate. For me, I’ve been working with people in mental health crisis for 25 years. I have a very comfortable way of knowing when to approach and when to avoid. That’s a refined skill.”

Both Pestas and Kellow acknowledged that when police get involved with a mental health patient, their options are limited, and can involve checking someone into an emergency room, which they agreed is not a therapeutic setting for most people.

A ‘simple check-in’

Pestas recommends anyone suffering from mental illness — which ranges from anxiety, drug abuse, depression, stress, suicidal thoughts, or struggles to cope with family and relationship issues — to call the Colorado Crisis Services hotline at 1-844-493-8255, text “TALK” to 38255 or visit the Boulder Walk-In Crisis clinic at 3180 Airport Road, open 24 hours a day.

Kellow said many afflicted with mental illness fail to take advantage of resources available to them, such as counseling services offered by employers, for which family members of an employee are also often eligible.

There is consensus, however, between officials and other residents to encourage people to familiarize themselves with signs of mental illness and those — either housed or transient — in their neighborhoods who suffer its effects.

Through a federal grant, Longmont offers free Mental Health First Aid training, which coaches participants through how to engage someone experiencing a mental disorder or crisis.

Kellow said Front Range Community College staff member John Heisel took a Mental Health First Aid class in July and about a month later, intervened to safely help a student through a panic attack.

In situations when it is hard to tell if someone on the sidewalk is in need of mental health services, Pestas simply suggests amicability.

“We’re talking to humans, right? A simple check-in, ‘Hey man, are you doing alright all right?’ instead of crossing the street — I’m not asking if you have mental illness or if you just broke up with someone” he said.

Sam Lounsberry: 303-473-1322, slounsberry@prairiemountainmedia.com and twitter.com/samlounz .