University of Illinois Police Add Social Workers for More Effective Response to Mental Health Crises
Urbana-Champaign IL Nov 30 2021
A student overwhelmed by schoolwork and engaging in self-harm. An international student missing home who has thought about suicide. Another student feeling pressure from the social aspects of college life. A community member demonstrating signs of paranoia and anxiety.
All of those cases and several more came across the desk of Megan Cambron just in September. She is the crisis outreach coordinator at the University of Illinois Police Department, and she supervises the department’s Response, Evaluation and Crisis Help (REACH) initiative. The creation of REACH was spearheaded by University of Illinois Police (UIPD) Chief Alice Cary.
None of those crisis calls are unfamiliar on a college campus, but the unusual part is the way UIPD has begun addressing those calls in a co-responder model, which pairs social workers with police officers. Cambron said the university police department’s REACH pilot program really “took off” when students returned to campus for the fall semester.
“Even in that short time, we’ve seen a need for social work response during many police calls,” Cambron said. “The past 18 months have been challenging for most of us, and particularly difficult for students leaving home for the for the first time and navigating a new environment, establishing positive social supports and taking on new responsibilities all during a worldwide pandemic.”
REACH is an innovative model with two components. First, social workers employed by the department ride with police officers to respond to mental health-related emergencies where the social workers can provide better on-scene clinical assessments of people in need. Second, REACH acts as a wraparound service to follow-up with those individuals within a few days of the initial emergency call to connect them with community resources that can provide long-term care.
The initial response to crisis and assessing the individual is critical, but the follow-up component is where preventive measures can chip away at recurring issues. REACH does not provide long-term care itself but makes connections with other community organizations that do.
“We cannot simply take a reactive stance to mental health,” Cambron said. “We must be involved in connecting individuals to community resources and providing ongoing support if we want to prevent crises from reoccurring.”
The potential payoff of the REACH initiative is immense. Some of the goals include providing better care to community members in crisis, assuring proper use of emergency resources, decreasing unnecessary hospitalizations and laying the foundation for people in need to seek long-term care that can make a difference in their lives.
“We hope that with a more accurate and appropriate response to mental health crises, we will see a decline in unnecessary transports to the hospital and less involvement in the criminal justice system,” Cambron said.
Introducing the REACH co-responder model was one of Chief Cary’s top priorities when she joined UIPD in July 2020. The REACH unit was up and running within a year, and two social workers were on patrol for the beginning of the fall 2021 semester.
Cary said that the REACH idea came out of a recognition that law enforcement could do a better job of addressing mental health-related calls for service and also out of feedback from community members who want to see a reduced role for police officers in mental health response.
“REACH is specifically going to address getting individuals in the profession of social work and de-escalation and counseling in the field so that law enforcement can take a step back and professionals in mental health can take a step forward,” Cary said.
In part, it is one of the department’s answers to the national conversation on policing that intensified following the officer-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“That incident made us and entities across the country stop and re-examine what we do and how we do it,” Cary said. “The creation of REACH is one of the answers in how police respond and minimizing the way sworn police officers respond to crisis.”
Though much of their work historically has been done separately, social workers and police officers have a long-standing history of cooperation and are a natural match for a number of reasons.
“In fact, much of the day-to-day tasks of an officer involve social work skills like communication, mediation, conflict resolution, de-escalation, recognizing the signs of addiction and mental illness, and crisis response,” Cambron said.
In addition to accompanying officers on calls, social workers can provide internal training to officers on topics like engagement techniques, communication skills, emotional intelligence, suicide prevention, stress management and community resources.
“The implementation of social work in policing has significant potential to positively impact overall officer wellness as well as police response in the community,” Cambron said.