TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Law enforcement officers throughout Tuscaloosa County will soon be better equipped to interact with citizens with serious mental illness and substance abuse.
Dr. Hee Yun Lee, professor in The University of Alabama School of Social Work, was awarded a $375,000 grant by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to develop a web-app training course to help police officers respond appropriately to these situations.
The web app training titled, mobile Mental Health Education, Awareness, and Learning, or mHEAL, will increase officers’ mental health awareness and efficacy and include de-escalation techniques and mental health first aid program, while decreasing stigma associated with mental illness and substance abuse.
Lee, associate dean for research and Endowed Academic Chair in Social Work (Health), said fewer than half of the nearly 8 million people with serious mental illness and/or serious emotional disturbance receive treatment in the United States. These individuals account for one of every five police calls and over a quarter of fatal police shootings in the U.S.
Interaction between law enforcement officers and those with mental health problems is pronounced in Alabama, where only 12.3% of these individuals receive treatment, Lee said.
And though evidence-based mental health training models exist for police, implementation is lacking, particularly for law enforcement in Alabama, Lee said.
“Police officers in Alabama may have low mental health background and education,” said Lee. “Many of our officers aren’t prepared to communicate with people who may be suicidal, or those who are high on drugs, like opioids. Our online model will educate our officers, and the web app can help them find the right words to help calm a citizen.”
The three-year project will begin with the development of the training program, then implementation with all nine law enforcement agencies in Tuscaloosa County. The program will combine two evidence-based mental health practice models – Mental Health First Aid and Crisis Intervention Training – and officers will volunteer for the program and complete the eight-hour training course at their own pace.
Lee said police chiefs and sheriffs across the county are helping form a community advisory board to determine the areas of focus. The long-term goal of the project is to establish a state-wide online training program that focuses on how to work with civilians with mental health and substance use problems.
Other UA researchers on the project include Dr. Rebecca Allen, professor of psychology, who will help develop the training materials; and Dr. Laura Myers, director of the Center for Advanced Public Safety (CAPS) at UA, who will help develop the web app. CAPS develops software for law enforcement agencies in Alabama.
“To my knowledge, there is no online training program for police officers in this topic nationally,” Lee said. “I am very excited to work with police officers to develop the Alabama-specific program that will eventually help improve quality of lives of Alabamians.”
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.