May The Skunk Whisperer Be With You

APR. 12, 2016

By Nancy Boucher


A few months ago, I was invited to speak as part of a NAMI educational session to a new group of about 50 cadets at the Maine Criminal Justice Academy. I talked about our family’s experience in calling 911 for help with a mental health emergency with our son—specifically what helped and what hindered support. I wanted to communicate the critical importance of understanding that aggressive behaviors from those experiencing a mental health emergency are defensive, not offensive. Although aggressive defensive behavior and aggressive offensive behavior may look the same, their source is different, and so is the helpful response that is needed.

In situations of mental health distress, defensive behavior often originates in fear of real or perceived danger fueled by depression, anxiety, paranoia or delusions. Offensive behavior is usually planned, predatory and after some particular gain or goal. A successful outcome in responding to a call for help with a mental health emergency requires knowledge about that distinction and training in how best to approach someone in a defensive mode.

I began my talk with a true story about my first-born son Ezra’s recent encounter with a skunk—which earned him the nickname of “the skunk whisperer.”

My son, his wife and their two boys live in rural Maine. They have one vehicle, which they use to juggle a lot of activities. They home school our grandsons, which involves trips into the city for music jamming sessions, music lessons, language lessons, book clubs at the public library, etc. On this day, my son was heading to a carpentry job. My daughter-in-law, Christina, was driving him to work while the boys were at home minding the dogs and the household. Roads in their area are not backed up with traffic. As Ez and Christina rounded a bend in the road, they saw a skunk crossing in daylight with a glass jar stuck over its head.

Ez asked Christina to stop, saying, “I want to try to help him,” and got out of the car. He slowly approached the skunk with his hand outstretched, saying quietly, “I want to try to help you. Let me help you.” He used few words and he used them repetitively. This calm approach worked, and the skunk walked over to him. Trust had been established.

At first Ezra tried to pull the jar off the skunk’s head with no luck. He repeated comforting words. The skunk came back toward him. This time Ezra put his hand on the skunk’s back, lifted him and tried to shake the jar off his head. He ended up dropping the skunk, and both Ez and the skunk scuttled back a few feet. The skunk began to raise his tail slowly but then lowered it. He never used his protective weaponry on Ezra!

Once more Ez told the skunk that he was there to help. Then he called to Christina to bring him a hammer. He gently hammered at the jar. The jar came off completely. The skunk went on his way, and my son continued on his way to work.

Applying lessons from this story could result in better outcomes when police are called to assist with someone who is experiencing a mental health crises. What is needed from responders is what Ez offered to the skunk:

  1. Reassurance that you are there to help
  2. Words of comfort spoken repetitively, clearly and calmly
  3. Space
  4. Patience to establish trust

If you are calling for help for a loved one, tell the dispatcher clearly that this is a mental health emergency. Request CIT-trained officers or mental health liaison officers as available. Request that they avoid using sirens and lights because the added stimuli can trigger or worsen symptoms and could increase the anxiety, fear or paranoia that your loved one may be experiencing.

The job of a police officer is complex. They should be given the training that they need to be ready to respond effectively to calls for help with mental health emergencies.

To all those who have chosen to serve and to protect, may the skunk whisperer be with you.

Nancy Pizzo Boucher is a dedicated advocate for those dealing with mental illness and works to promote understanding of a person-first approach to healing. She is the author of two books based on her family's experiences: Getting My Night Vision and Replanting Lives Uprooted By Mental Illness: a practical guide for families.


NOV, 25, 2016 02:21:13 PM
Sheila Girard
Nancy, your Skunk story is perfect for everyone to hear..... no matter what the job, no matter what the situation we should all have MORE patients/understanding/and take the time to really listen when others talk to us. You have shed the light to many people and I am so happy I have had the pleasure to listen to you and hear of your families stories and how your stories have helped me and others follow the path of making a differences in our family. This is a world that people need to accept that if someone has a MI, they are LOVED, they are BEAUTIFUL, they have people that LOVE THEM and the days are brighter ahead with family cooperating together. You Nancy, have opened up your heart and soul to help others. Thank you so much for being the wonderful YOU! xo

JUN, 13, 2016 08:04:09 AM
Mary Small
Thank you Nancy for your sound advice to both police officers and first responders as well as family reaching out for help for a loved one.

MAY, 04, 2016 09:16:04 PM
Nancy Pizzo Boucher
Thank you all for taking the time to respond to my post so thoughtfully. What each one of you said was such a valuable contribution to the understanding needed to respond to mental health emergencies. I am heartbroken for your loss of your son Laura. To me, there is no loss so great as that of losing your child. I watched it happen to my mother when my youngest brother died at 17 years old. She never recovered. Please keep using your voices to help change things for the better. Special thanks to Grace for your feedback that what I have written is on target for what is needed by those with lived experience who are on the receiving end of help. peace and goodwill , Nancy

MAY, 01, 2016 04:40:28 PM
I had to call the authorities for the first time to help with my son. We are very fortunate that the police department in Lake County must have had training on helping those with mental illness. The first time I called, he had to be taken to the ER, my son went willingly. The officers were compassionate and took their time talking to him. The did not come with sirens on, the ambulance was not called, and they parked a few houses from my sons. I pray that all authorities receive the training need dealing with the mentally ill.

APR, 29, 2016 01:36:09 PM
Michael Woody
Wonderful story Nancy, and a very visual way of explaining why here at CIT International we believe we are making a difference. A difference in the way CIT officers deal with those suffering this illness. A difference in the way all officers "SEE" the person with this illness and their families. A difference that often translates into calming the situation and if need be seeing to it that the person with this illness is transported to a mental health provider or hospital instead of a jail. I believe a strong partnership between NAMI, Mental Health Providers and now Law Enforcement is making a difference.
Michael Woody - President; CIT International

APR, 27, 2016 10:50:47 PM
Pamela miles
Police vary in qualification dealing with menta illness. Not all are trained and some who say they have been trained are not good at dealing with a mental crisis. I have had many encounters with the police and crisis because of my son. There should be a law in EVERY state, a federal law, that when there is a mental health crisis a certified counselor or a psychologist come to the home along with police to evaluate the ill person.

APR, 27, 2016 11:45:39 AM
Love the story. I'm bipolar and have had several situations where the police had to be called to assist me on a suicidal attempt . Yes they need to treat the situation as you described I appreciate your accuracy .

APR, 25, 2016 04:22:42 AM
I'm very sorry for your loss and very frustrated with the response you got from the sheriff's department! All over the Western world, families, patients (they're not consumers or clients any more than heart attack victims) & mental health advocates have requested, pleaded, shouted, begged and protested for governments to train & deploy Emergency Mental Health Officers or Specialist Police to end the discriminatory & stigmatising emergency treatment & transport of acutely disturbed people to Mental Health Facilities, whether within General Hospitals or in stand-alone centres. Whilst stigma generally has been reduced, this obviously crucially important first contact with acute/emergency services, remains an hit or miss affair depending on where you live & the priorities & prejudices of those holding the purse strings. In my opinion, Mental Health Professional Bodies, Mental Health Support & Advocacy Organisations like NAMI & Civil Rights Organisations must demand change to ensure that Acutely Mentally Disturbed people receive appropriate assessment, treatment & transport by suitably trained experts equivalent to Mobile Intensive Care Ambulance Officers. The appalling toll of such mentally unwell people being shot by Police, who in many jurisdictions do not even have non-lethal technologies at their disposal, MUST be reduced to zero as a matter of great urgency. Any other response does not befit a civilised society.

APR, 13, 2016 06:52:21 AM
Good article. Will check out books she/you recommended

APR, 12, 2016 05:23:40 PM
Laura Stoddart
The sheriffs department is not trained to handle mental health issues. My son was shot to death on Valentines Day in Bradenton this year. He was under the influence of alcohol and probably a prescription drug. He had slashed is forearm twice and was staggering from the alcohol outside his home. After we got the news of his death, I called the sheriff's department and asked them if they had a different protocol for this type of situation. I was told they only had one protocol to follow. I hope my eleven year old grandson will be able to understand that they "just did as they were trained to do" God Bless all that suffer like this!

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