Lee, UA colleagues will also develop web-based app for real-time use

April 12, 2020

By David Miller

An interdisciplinary UA team led by Dr. Hee Yun Lee will create a web-based app to help police interact with citizens who have mental illnesses. (Adobe Stock)

Law enforcement officers throughout Tuscaloosa County will soon be better equipped to interact with citizens who have serious mental illness and substance abuse.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has awarded University of Alabama School of Social Work Professor Dr. Hee Yun Lee a $375,000 grant to develop a web-app training course that can help police officers respond appropriately to these situations in real-time.

The web app training titled, “mobile Mental Health Education, Awareness, and Learning (mHEAL) program,” will increase officers’ mental health “awareness and efficacy” and include de-escalation techniques and mental health first aid program, while “simultaneously decreasing stigma associated with mental illness and substance abuse.”

Lee, associate dean for research and Endowed Academic Chair in Social Work (Health) in the UA School of Social Work, said that 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 one quarter of fatal police shootings in the U.S.

The rate of interaction between law enforcement officers (LEOs) and those with mental health problems is pronounced in the State of Alabama, where fewer than 12.3% of these individuals receive treatment, Lee said.

And though evidence-based mental health training models exist for police, implementation is lacking, particularly for LEOs in Alabama, Lee said.

“Police officers in Alabama may have low mental health background and education,” said Lee, principal investigator for the study. “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 three-year project will begin with the development of the training program, then implementation with all nine law enforcement agencies in Tuscaloosa County. The program will combine two evidence-based mental health practice models – Mental Health First Aid and Crisis Intervention Training – and officers will volunteer for the program and complete the eight-hour training course at their own pace.

Lee said police chiefs and sheriffs across the county are helping form a community advisory board to determine the areas of focus. The long-term goal of the project is to establish a state-wide online training program that focuses on how to work with civilians with mental health and substance use problems.

The project’s co-investigators 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 has widely developed software for law enforcement agencies in Alabama.

“To my knowledge, there is no online training program for police officers in this topic nationally,” Lee said. “I am very excited to work with police officers to develop the Alabama-specific program that will eventually help improve quality of lives of Alabamians.”