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Community Program to Improve Crisis Response for People with Mental Health Challenges Should Serve as National Model

In the spring of 2017, The Kennedy Forum Illinois, NAMI-Chicago, and other public/private partners launched the Westside Community Outreach Pilot Project with the goal of engaging the community in efforts to improve crisis response for people with mental health challenges.

Police are often the first line of response to individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis. Many officers do receive Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, but they are not always directed to emergencies where their skills are needed. For example, this can happen when mental health concerns are not clearly identified on a 911 call.

The Westside Project set out to change this by educating community members about signs and symptoms of mental illness, attempting to reduce negative attitudes/beliefs about mental illness, increasing requests for CIT-trained officers in crisis situations, and increasing referrals to professional mental health services.

An advisory committee of stakeholders living and/or working in the westside communities of Chicago identified trusted mentors in the community who might benefit from receiving mental health awareness training or Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training – school staff, faith leaders, and employees of community-based youth organizations. 583 people ultimately attended the trainings, which included information about how to connect with CIT-trained officers and community service providers.

The University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) Jane Addams College of Social Work was invited to evaluate the Westside Community Outreach Pilot Project. A team led by Dr. Amy C. Watson and Dr. Lorrie Rickman-Jones partnered with The Kennedy Forum Illinois to collect data and feedback from 24 separate trainings: 14 mental health awareness trainings and 10 MHFA trainings. (MHFA is a program of The National Council of Behavioral Health.)

The results of the evaluation showed that partnering with communities and providing brief mental health trainings can in fact decrease the stigma associated with mental health and addiction, increase knowledge and comfort in contacting a CIT-trained officer, and increase confidence that requesting a CIT-trained officer will result in better outcomes in the event of a crisis.

Based on these findings, on June 25, 2018, Mayor Emanuel announced that the project will be expanded to the South Side Roseland community. In addition, the city is investing in Smart 911, to support accurate, timely, and effective dispatch of emergency resources during a mental health crisis. Read the official press release here.

Other cities across the nation should consider implementing this project model to ensure the appropriate response to those in the midst of a mental health crisis. Everyone benefits when community members are connected to the right resources and treatment. 

For more information about the Westside Community Outreach Pilot Project, contact James Burns at james@thekennedyforum.org or 312-479-2636.

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“We stand on the doorstep to make momentous progress in advancing the cause of this new civil rights struggle started by the work of President Kennedy over 50 years ago.”
— Patrick J. Kennedy
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