Crisis professionals

Pro-Crisis uses actors to simulate crisis scenarios to train everyone from prison guards to nurses.

by Joseph Kleinschmidt


Patti Hecht-Kressly, a former police officer for 13 years, now surrounds herself with actors. She coaches them to reproduce symptoms of mental illnesses like post-traumatic stress disorder for training purposes.

Actors remain in character during each scenario until a trainee calms them down using techniques to subvert the nervous tension. But Hecht-Kressly admits the difficulty in de-escalation of a crisis âÄî one actor gave Hecht-Kressly anxiety by inadvertently bringing up past experiences.

âÄúI really disliked one of the actors,âÄù Hecht-Kressly said. âÄúThere was something about her. I just couldnâÄôt stand it. I had these physical feelings âÄî I tensed up, I just got really nervous.âÄù

The portrayal caused a gut-reaction for Hecht-Kressly; she could not separate the character and the actor because the depiction closely resembled a woman she frequently encountered in her time as a police officer in South St. Paul.

âÄúI went up to her and I said, âÄòI didnâÄôt like you, but I realized now itâÄôs not you âÄî itâÄôs because you triggered this in me,âÄôâÄù**** Hecht-Kressly said.

Based on the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training model originally developed for law enforcement, Hecht-Kressly coaches the improv specialists to train nurses, social workers and prison guards alike. Actors play people with various mental illnesses, including schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, both of which are commonly misunderstood afflictions.

âÄúThereâÄôs a stigma attached to mental illnesses that people can control it, and thatâÄôs not necessarily true,âÄù Hecht-Kressly said.

With a masterâÄôs degree in counseling psychology from St. Thomas, Hecht-Kressly expanded the CIT training model and founded Pro-Crisis in 2008. The companyâÄôs name might be slightly misleading âÄî the âÄúProâÄù in Hecht-KresslyâÄôs program simply refers to the professional intervention on display. As the first female officer working in South St. Paul, Hecht-Kressly actively uses her experiences on patrol and investigations.

âÄúI had to learn how to de-escalate people my way, because I knew I wasnâÄôt the biggest âÄî I couldnâÄôt fight everybody,âÄù Hecht-Kressly said.

The first company of its kind, Pro-Crisis teaches the basics of mental health to workers in fields outside of strictly law enforcement. Hecht-Kressly recently ran sessions to train prison guards for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. According to a study from the Department of Justice, 56 percent of state prison inmates have symptoms of serious mental illnesses.

âÄúDealing with someone with schizophrenia is intimidating,âÄù Hecht-Kressly said. âÄúIf weâÄôre able to give someone experience, we are able to give the [corrections] officers the ability to practice de-escalating with someone trained to look as if they are having a psychotic break.âÄù

Before their âÄúbig break,âÄù actors complete 40 hour training sessions of their own. They perform roles illustrating emotions ranging from uncontrollable mania to suicidal despondence. Since trainees often role-play with fellow peers, many have not worked with actors before. But before completing the Pro-Crisis program, they must communicate and reduce the tension the actors inevitably create in a particular scenario.

âÄúHaving an actor in there âÄîbeing suicidal and depressed and crying real tears and boogers flowing and all that other stuff âÄî it makes it totally real for them,âÄù Hecht-Kressly said.

Pro-Crisis attempts to identify traineesâÄô empathy toward patients or subjects in crisis situations. For law enforcement especially, the CIT training and Pro-Crisis programs signal positive change in lieu of police brutality in the Occupy movements nationwide.

âÄúSome people just canâÄôt [empathize], and we want to get them to be as empathetic as they can be, but for the most part, cops can do it,âÄù Hecht-Kressly said. âÄúCorrections [officers] can do it.âÄù

The improv actors come in handy, but sometimes the faux-crisis situations uncover deeper seeds of mental anguish in the trainees themselves. Pro-Crisis offers a chance to identify such distress like Hecht-KresslyâÄôs initial reaction to one of the actors. While itâÄôs entirely up to the participant if they would like to work through a difficult scenario, Pro-Crisis offers a positive way to counteract an intimidating scene.

âÄúA lot of officers have had people that completed suicides in front of them âÄî a lot of emotional things come up in the role-play because it really triggers something.âÄù

Even though Hecht-Kressly admits methods of de-escalation will not always solve real crisis situations âÄî the safety of the responder must be considered first and foremost âÄî Pro-Crisis provides hands-on experience with actorsâÄô help in crisis simulation.

âÄúIt really changes their view on how you deal with somebody,âÄù Hecht-Kressly said.