The S.C. Statehouse

The Statehouse. File

COLUMBIA — A Greenville man told a House panel his bipolar diagnosis caused him to be arrested six times by officers who were untrained in responding to someone with mental illness.

One run-in led to officers using a stun gun to calm Paton Blough while he was handcuffed in the back of a police car.

"I thought those officers were there to kill me," he recalled of the May 2006 incident.

Blough traveled to the Statehouse on Thursday to encourage that lawmakers require all South Carolina police officers take courses on how to de-escalate encounters with those who have mental illness issues.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides training to law enforcement agencies for free, but departments must be willing to take officers off the streets to attend class. NAMI receives $170,000 from the state each year to run its program.

Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, said he would like to see the training added to officers' initial training at the Criminal Justice Academy, to avoid placing a burden on smaller precincts by pulling police from the streets.

The committee stalled the bill so it can get feedback from the Criminal Justice Academy.

Blough said his work with NAMI helped him get his life back together.

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"After struggling with bipolar for three rough years, which included six arrests and six mental hospitalizations, my life began to turn around," he said. "I woke up one morning and read about Andrew Torres, who had been tased by Greenville police and died as a result of an enlarged heart when the police came to take him to a hospital. I thought, 'That could have been me.'"

The incident caused Greenville's police to expand the number of officers who received special "crisis intervention team" training for calls involving those with mental illness from four, to 140. Having those trained officers and ready is best for society at large, said NAMI S.C. Executive Director Bill Lindsey.

"The first and foremost thing we’re about is safety," he said. "Not just for the safety of those people with mental illness, that’s probably why we got into it. But it’s for the safety of those law enforcement officers. If they know how to respond and are properly trained, it protects them as well as it protects those folks that they’re dealing with."

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.

Maya T. Prabhu covers the Statehouse from Columbia. She previously covered city government and other topics in South Carolina and Maryland. Maya has a bachelors in English from Spelman College and a masters in journalism from the University of Maryland.