By Douglas Quan, Postmedia News March 18, 2013
A unique police training program that uses actors to portray people with a variety of psychiatric disorders shows promise in teaching officers to deal more effectively with those with mental illness, according to a new study.
The findings released Monday by University of Alberta researchers comes at a time when other studies have shown that those with psychiatric disorders are disproportionately represented in arrest data and as police forces have come under scrutiny for violent — and sometimes fatal — confrontations with them.
"We all hear tragic situations in which sometimes perhaps a greater understanding of mental illness would've been helpful," said Peter Silverstone, a psychiatrist in the university's faculty of medicine and dentistry and lead investigator of the study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.
More than 600 officers from the Edmonton Police Service took part in the study, which had each of them interact with actors in six scenarios. The scenarios included having officers respond to a depressed and belligerent person who was near a weapon, a psychotic individual experiencing hallucinations, and an excited individual behaving strangely on a public street.
Following each session, officers received feedback from supervising officers, psychologists and the actors on everything from their stance to their tone to how well they showed empathy. For instance, did they share their name with the actor, look the actor in the eyes or attempt to build rapport by mirroring the actor's body movements?
"If you can give them the skills to increase the perceived empathy, that's very important," Silverstone said. "We all want to feel that somebody understands us at a fundamental level."
In a follow-up survey six months later, supervising officers reported improvements in officers' abilities to "verbally de-escalate" situations and to show empathy when dealing people with psychiatric disorders, according to the study.
The average number of mental health calls also went up, the study reported.
"The data from the study suggests that after they went through training, they were much more clear and much better able to identify when mental health scenarios occurred. And they identified them much more frequently," Silverstone said.
There was also a marked decrease in the use of force against individuals with psychiatric disorders, though the researchers noted that Edmonton police had introduced other initiatives around the same time as the study to reduce the use of force in all circumstances.
While most officers thought the training was beneficial, there were some negative comments, Silverstone wrote in a related paper.
"None of the tools provided to me have worked," one officer said. Another questioned why the actors were being asked for their feedback.
"A schizophrenic would not likely think or feel in any way similar to what the actors 'felt' and this somewhat made the scenarios unrealistic," the officer stated.
Studies in Canada and Britain have found that 37 to 48 per cent of people fatally shot by police had underlying mental health issues, the researchers reported.
A 2012 study sponsored by the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that about 40 per cent of people with psychiatric disorders had been arrested in their lifetimes, and that people with mental illness were over-represented in police-related shootings, Taser incidents and fatalities.
The same study also found that people with mental illness tended to hold more negative views toward police than the general public.
Despite these findings, current mental health training for police officers "varies widely" across Canada, the Alberta researchers said. Some officers only get training during recruitment; others have been enrolled in classroom or online courses. The effectiveness of programs has not been rigorously tested.
One recent trend has been the creation of mobile crisis response teams — staffed by mental health professionals — that police can call upon if they need help dealing with someone who has a mental illness.
In the past, officers spent a lot of time doing "street triage" on people with mental health problems or escorting them to hospital, said Brad Duncan, police chief in London, Ont., which has such a team.
"There is a level of frustration when you know an individual needs assistance but we don't have the ability to do much more than make sure they're OK, that they won't harm themselves," he said.
Now, with the creation of crisis response teams, these individuals get better care, which frees up officers to handle other calls, Duncan said.
Ottawa police are experimenting with teaming up psychiatrists with patrol officers as part of a yearlong pilot project.
There is now "clear recognition" among police forces of the need to develop closer relationships with those who have the expertise, said Tim Smith, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.
"Police cannot address this issue on their own."
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