Alcona County jail receives training on mental illness

News Photo by Julie Riddle Corrections officers at the Alcona County jail try an exercise designed to illustrate the effects of schizophrenia at a training Wednesday.

HARRISVILLE — “She doesn’t like you,” the voice whispers, cutting into the speaker’s thoughts. “Nobody cares what you think. You’re worthless.”

Corrections officers at the Alcona County jail received training Wednesday to learn about the mental illnesses that they may encounter in jail cells on any given day. Representatives of Community Mental Health shared information about bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mania, personality disorders, and other mental health conditions, offering the officers a deeper understanding of the illnesses they encounter while working in a jail setting.

Mental illness is very common in jails, according to Amy Pilarski, project coordinator for the mental health group at CMH. Illnesses of the brain, whether caused by chemical imbalance, learned behavior, or substance abuse, often lead to behavior that results in incarceration, and jail personnel regularly have to confront and address the behavior caused by the illness.

CMH provides regular training at jails in several Northeast Michigan counties in the signs and symptoms of mental illness, preparing corrections officers to respond to inmates who become confrontational or self-destructive as a result of their condition.

In one exercise during Wednesday’s training, the officers broke into groups of three. Two people tried to carry on a conversation while a third hissed condemning statements into their ears. The experience was jarring, the officers found, the whispered words leading to feelings of agitation and defensiveness and making it impossible to stay focused on the conversation.

The exercise reflects the sensations experienced by a schizophrenic during an episode of the illness, Pilarski said. One goal of the training provided by CMH is to help corrections officers understand what’s going on in the mind of the people in their care, something not easy to visualize for those who have not experienced it firsthand.

The officers are also given training on how to effectively respond to mental health situations they encounter, a scenario that Alcona County Jail Administrator George Schrader said is happening with greater and greater frequency.

Mental illness, often heightened by the stress of a jail environment, can manifest itself in anger, violence, suicide attempts, impulsivity, or manipulativeness masquerading as sweetness, Pilarski said. Corrections officers can encounter states of mental instability while booking a subject or interacting with an inmate and need to be prepared to take steps to de-escalate the situation. Their efforts will be more effective, CMH believes, if they understand the different types of mental illness that might be causing the behavior.

“They’re the ones who interact with these individuals on a daily basis,” Pilarski said, calling them not only front-line officers but also reporters who can provide accurate information about the mental condition exhibited by each inmate. That information can be shared with CMH, who can then provide a higher level of treatment as effectively as possible.

“Having them having the knowledge of the signs and symptoms of mental illness for us is a very important piece” in the agency’s ability to treat mentally unstable inmates, Pilarski said.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or