Get to Know Frederick Nitsch

Frederick Nitsch has found many ways to use his experiences as an individual living with mental illness to help others. In addition to serving on “lived-experience panels” and as a role player during Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, he also leads Connection Recovery Support Groups and presents in Ending the Silence Programs. Frederick is affiliated with NAMI Chicago.

As a person living with a mental health condition, please explain the role you play during CIT training. 

On the lived-experience panels, three or four of us share our recovery stories and then answer questions the police had. Most of our stories included past interactions with law enforcement, usually negative. The most frequent questions were what police could have done better in the instances recalled by the panelists, and whether we (the panelists) believed that a single event or group of traumatic incidents caused our mental health conditions. The answer to that last question was “No” because even in the case of trauma, panelists identified other factors (or acknowledged the influence of unknown factors) that contributed to their most difficult years.

I participated in nearly every role-play at Chicago’s police academy for 2+ years. The role-plays, for which I had to build a scenario, were always intense. The police were evaluated based on whether they were validating the emotional truths I was experiencing and expressing, or if their words and actions were – intentionally or not – making me feel worse, i.e., unheard, not understood, and/or more frustrated.

The way to approach or question a person experiencing a mental health crisis might be obvious to a social worker or to someone who’s spent years in support groups, but it is not always obvious after just a week of education. Some police, though, seemed to be naturally able to empathize with my character, which goes a long way toward de-escalating a situation, establishing rapport, and encouraging the person in crisis to provide information.

More important in many ways than the role-plays themselves were when the entire team would watch half of the videos taken the previous day, so that all officers would see themselves at least once. It was our job, as representatives of both NAMI and the mental health community at large, to use the videos and our own experiences to educate the police on how and why people experiencing a mental health crisis cannot be treated like criminals by people whose job inclines them to think of people as criminals. The word “unlearn” was used a lot.

What impact do you think it has on those in training to be able to hear directly what it’s like to live with a mental illness?

My highest hope from these trainings is that those police who did learn something and who took CIT seriously are not silent when they’re in the field, that they take the lead when they wind up in a mental health-related call (and perhaps show more patience and empathy on other calls), and that they intervene when they see another officer doing something wrong, no matter who has what rank or in what jurisdiction they find themselves. As long as we live in a city where police are asked to intervene non-violent mental health situations, they need to be trained appropriately.

What is your favorite part of being involved with CIT training for CPD?

On a personal level, I enjoy speaking on panels because it gives me a chance to re-tell my own story, which I believe is important for someone in recovery to do from time to time. The way we tell our stories changes over time – hopefully in a way that reflects growth and the clarity afforded by distance. I enjoyed doing the role-plays for a similar reason, as to be able to choose to get into the headspace from a difficult time in my life – and to know that it would not consume me – served as a reminder that I had truly come a long way.

I hope I gave officers a few new tools, i.e., lines of questioning or some understanding of the virtue of patience in these situations. But what felt the best, the most important thing I was able to do or bear witness to, was when through my actions or my words I affirmed to those police who were already instinctively doing the right thing that they were deserving of encouragement, further education (such as the advanced CIT class at the fire academy), and respect – because we need more police like them and because we need them to lead by example.