REACH initiative aims to help those experiencing mental health crises

URBANA, Ill. — Megan Cambron sees real opportunity in the University of Illinois Police Department’s new model to help community members experiencing a mental health crisis.

Cambron is UIPD’s first Crisis Outreach Coordinator, and she is helping to build a team of social workers who will co-respond with police officers during mental health emergencies to provide better in-the-moment clinical assessments of people experiencing a crisis. Dubbed the Response, Evaluation and Crisis Help (REACH) initiative, the unit will also be tasked to follow up with those community members and make sure that they are connected with long-term care.

 “Police officers have always had that opportunity to sort of be change agents for a variety of different settings, and this is one of them,” Cambron said. “Along with a clinician, we have real potential to be a source of strong support, of encouragement, of really helping folks to make the decision to seek out care.”

Between a new environment, new friends and the pressure of academic pursuits, college can be a very trying time for a lot of people. That is part of the reason why certain mental health conditions begin to present themselves in college-aged people.

And because there are a variety of scenarios where someone experiencing a crisis may be presenting a risk of harming themselves or someone else, police are often called upon as the first response to a mental health emergency. UIPD responded to more than 220 crisis calls in 2019, resulting in more than 700 hours spent addressing mental health emergencies.

Building a better response to mental health emergencies has been a UIPD priority for quite some time. Depending on when training is available, about 50 to 70 percent of UIPD officers are trained in crisis intervention, which gives them the ability and the awareness to recognize when someone is experiencing a crisis and understanding the resources available that may best fit their needs.

Often, though, the options available to police officers are limited. Especially if the crisis call happens after hours, it is common that officers are presented with only two options: either take someone to the hospital or not. And if the latter is chosen, then officers can only hope that person reaches out on their own to community resources for long-term treatment.

“After 5 o’clock, the only other resource available to us as police officers responding to a mental health emergency was the hotline, where the person in crisis can talk to someone over the phone,” said U. of I. Police Officer Michelle Kaeding. “Which is great, but sometimes they need that in-person interaction and assessment. And the only other option for us was to go to the hospital.”

But hospitalization is not always the best option either.

Hospitalization “is often a long, frustrating, and exhausting process, and many times the person is assessed and sent back home because they don’t clinically require a higher level of care,” Cambron said.

One of the REACH team’s goals and one of the benefits of initiating a co-responder model is that having social workers on scene will help in determining if hospitalization is necessary. Psychiatric hospitalization is not where people get treatment, rather it’s a place where people can become more stable. A lot of time, hospitalization is not necessary, Cambron said, and it can actually be detrimental to getting someone the care they need.

“I have heard that from some students specifically,” Kaeding said. “They say, ‘I’ve been to the hospital already once this year, they just released me, it didn’t do anything for me.’ I think with having social workers on board, we’re going to be able to focus on those people who don’t need hospitalization but do need some sort of help.”

That is where the REACH team comes in again. When UIPD responds to a crisis call now and in the future, Cambron and a team of social workers will be tasked to follow-up with that person and make sure they are getting connected with the appropriate resources.

“Our goal really is to follow up with those folks after the crisis and stay with them until they get connected to outpatient treatment or longer-term care options,” Cambron said. “Just sort of being that safety net for them.”

To sum it up, Cambron said the REACH goals are several factors: better intervention in the moment, setting up a safety net for people after they have had a mental health-related law enforcement contact, and helping to change the perception and the stigma around mental illness.

And her hope is that, through these efforts, the REACH team will build more community confidence in the ability of police to help in a mental health emergency.

“There’s a lot of talk about what police departments can do better,” Cambron said. “This department is so open to these conversations and acknowledging that change is good a lot of the time. This is part of that. (We are asking ourselves) how do we do what we’re doing, but do it even better than it’s been done before.”