Police Academy pairs experts, technology in mental health training for cadets

Monday, August 24, 2020
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Increasingly, law enforcement has become the first line of contact for people with serious mental illness in crisis. Approximately 10 percent of police calls involve someone who is mentally ill, enduring conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, according to data furnished by the Mercyhurst Civic Institute.  How officers handle these calls can make the difference between life and death.

To address these concerns, the Mercyhurst Police Training Academy has slated a daylong intensive program on Thursday, Sept. 3, to provide its cadets with specialized training, said Academy Director Bill Hale. The objective is to help police respond to mental health emergencies in a safe, effective, and caring manner that deescalates tense situations. The need also exists to provide appropriate skills for police to care for themselves.

Hale said the academy currently includes mandated mental health training in its curriculum. The latest initiative is an effort to intensify that instruction in response to the growing need, and is made possible by UPMC Western Behavioral Health at Safe Harbor and the academy’s newest virtual reality technology. 

“Whenever you can bring in the experts accompanied by the latest technology, you’ve got a good opportunity to elevate your instruction,” Hale said.

Mandy Fauble, director of clinical care services at Safe Harbor, said the combination of subject-matter experts – both law enforcement and mental health – can be a highly effective team approach to teaching and learning.
“The cadets benefit from hearing both perspectives,” Fauble said. In terms of Safe Harbor’s contribution, students will learn how to recognize indicators of mental health crises or suicidal thinking, how to communicate with a person in crisis, techniques for defusing a tense situation, and where and how to get help.

Using its recently acquired Virtual Reality Training Simulator, the police academy has been introducing cadets to dozens of real-life scenarios, from mass shootings to domestic violence. Hale said several of the scenarios focus on mental health emergencies and will be used to accompany Safe Harbor’s presentations.  

“The great thing about this new technology is that it brings you closer to a real-life experience than anything I’ve ever seen before,” Hale added. “It’s so immersive; you feel you are there.”

Fauble noted that there is “a big difference between talking about what to do in a particular situation and walking through it” to practice appropriate responses, which is where the simulation-based, interactive technology is so effective.