When Tuscaloosa County Probate Judge Rob Robertson ran for his seat, he understood he would be dealing with mental health issues. As a former law enforcement officer himself, Robertson understood officers in all departments and levels needed more training for dealing with persons with mental health and substance abuse issues. As probate judge, he conducts the involuntary commitment hearings required before someone is placed in custody of Alabama Department of Mental Health.

In June of last year four officers with specialized training joined three previous officers as part of a partnership between the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, Tuscaloosa, Northport, and University of Alabama police departments. Now, building on that a new web-based app developed by University of Alabama researchers will allow law enforcement personnel to deescalate and better handle encounters.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration awarded a $375,000 grant to University of Alabama professor Dr. Hee Yun Lee to develop the app for the four local law enforcement agencies.

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.

According to a UA press release, Lee says interaction between law enforcement officers and those with mental health problems is pronounced in Alabama, where only 12.3% of persons with these issues receive treatment.

“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 mobile Mental Health Education, Awareness, and Learning, or mHEAL app, 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.

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.


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