Mental illness training for cops effective: Study

Includes role-playing, feedback from actors
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/17/2013

In 2011, police officers at the Edmonton Police Service participated in a one-day training program on how to deal with individuals with a mental illness. Officers participated in role-playing exercises involving actors who represented various mental illnesses.

The goal of the training was to improve officers’ empathy, communication skills and ability to de-escalate potentially difficult situations.

“Police deal with mental illness on a daily basis — it is one of the highest number of calls,” said Peter Silverstone, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Alberta in Calgary. “Training police as to the best way to interact with the people they see frequently is a good thing, in and of itself, and there is also a great deal of misunderstanding about mental illness.”

A recent study by Silverstone has proven the training program’s effectiveness. Six months after the program, participating officers were able to deal with mental illness more effectively, better recognize mental health issues and decrease the use of physical force, found the study, published in the March issue of Frontiers in Psychology.

More than 650 officers from the police service participated in the training program, which was developed through close collaboration between Silverstone, his team and the Edmonton Police Service. Each officer went through six scenarios:

• A depressed individual who was belligerent and potentially violent with a weapon nearby.

• A psychotic individual who was experiencing hallucinations.

• An excited individual behaving strangely on a public street.

• An individual with presumed alcohol dependence collapsed on the street.

• A couple arguing about the man’s gambling addiction.

• A depressed individual who may have overdosed.

“We were trying to reflect the common interactions the police have and trying to get them to see things in a different light than they may have originally,” said Silverstone. “For example, the manic presentation was very similar to an individual who may be taking a stimulant or other drugs, so we tried to get the police to not take the situation for granted and start to think about what actually may be presented to them.”

The actors who portrayed the individuals with mental illnesses really enhanced the officers’ training, said Sgt. David DeMarco, the officer in charge of the tactics training team, especially since other types of in-service training usually have police officers acting the part, rather than professionally trained actors.

“The actors were there, they played that role, they were the people we see every day in the field. The best they could possibly portray that behaviour in a controlled environment, they did,” he said. “That caused the officers to challenge themselves and move beyond ‘This is training’ — a lot of officers felt, ‘Hey, this is real.’”

The actors also offered feedback to the officers after the role-playing, describing how the officers’ actions made them feel. For example: “I was frightened when you came that close to me.”

Supervisors and psychologists also provided feedback to the officers after they dealt with each scenario. They offered tips for how to improve their interaction, such as changing their body language to mirror that of the individual, looking her in the eye and sharing their names with her, said Silverstone.

The program filled a void in officer training, as new recruits at the Edmonton Police Service receive training around mental health issues but there is very little related training after that, said DeMarco.

Mental health training varies widely among police services across the country, from basic new recruit training to a four-day, in-classroom training program at Peel and Halton Regional Police in Ontario, according to the study.

Benefits of the program

Before the program began, the officers’ supervisors completed a baseline survey of their behaviour and then completed another survey six months after training.

The followup survey found there was a 40 per cent increase in officers’ ability to recognize mental health issues as the reason for a call.

For example, after the training, a couple of officers responded to a disoriented person who seemed a little lost, but they were able to recognize late stages of delirium tremens (usually caused by severe alcohol withdrawal) and realized the individual needed medical attention, said DeMarco.

“Rather than bringing them to a homeless shelter, they brought this person to emergency and the medical staff said that was the greatest call because of what this person was in need of.”

The study also found participating officers used less physical force or fewer weapons when interacting with people who were mentally ill. Studies in Canada and the United Kingdom have found 37 per cent to 48 per cent of individuals fatally shot by police were classified as having a mental health problem at the time of the shooting, found the study.

It’s very important for officers to learn how to de-escalate a situation, said Terry Coleman, retired chief of police in Moose Jaw, Sask.

“If you aggravate the situation by shouting at somebody who is not hearing you properly, not interpreting what you’re saying, everybody’s blood pressure is going up, they’re not following the directions of the police officer, the officer tries to grab his hand to put cuffs on and the use of force can be escalated. We’ve seen far too many situations where somebody has been seriously injured.”

Officers who participated in the training program also improved their efficiency in dealing with mental health issues. They were able to spend less time on the calls, which translated into a cost savings of more than $80,000 in the following six month, said Silverstone.

Role-playing not for everyone

But there may be downsides to this training program, namely the fact that not everyone responds well to role-playing, said Coleman.

“Role-playing has been used by police stations for many, many, many years and it doesn’t work for everybody. Some people just detest it, they see it as fabricated and artificial,” he said. “And you definitely need to practise, so there’s the conundrum — if you don’t practise on each other, how is this going to get any better?”

Mental health training should not just be offered to police officers but to all police personnel, including the people who take the calls and work at reception, said Coleman.

Going forward, components of the one-day mental health training program will be integrated with other training for police officers at the Edmonton Police Service, said DeMarco. This fall, the force will be engaging in more mental health scenarios that revisit the objectives of the training.

And Silverstone is hoping to roll out the program at more police forces across North America and Europe.

In order to implement these types of training programs, the human resources department plays a key role, said DeMarco, whose training team works under HR.

While this training is slowly starting to be seen in some of the bigger police agencies, far too often the people who design police training and education do not have experience with curriculum design or a background in teaching, education or HR, said Coleman.

“A lot of police learning programs have been put together where, unfortunately, HR people in the broad sense are not involved in the design and the delivery, and that’s more than a shame — it’s not good enough.”

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