Effectiveness of Mental Health Education on Law Enforcement

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Training surrounding the symptoms of mental illness can increase an officer’s general mental health knowledge, as well as reduce the stigmas associated with people with mental illness.

Problem Icon Problem

COMMUNITY NEED

In recent years, law enforcement calls involving Persons with Mental Illness (PMI) have increased to where 10% of calls now involve PMI. Additionally, according to investigations conducted by the US Department of Justice, “interactions between PMI (and individuals perceived to be PMI) and [law enforcement officers] more frequently lead to use of force.” DOJ believes this is associated with “a lack of knowledge, experience, and training…regarding mental illness and strategies to use when interacting with these individuals.”

RESPONSE

There are some options for training law enforcement on mental illness, such as Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). However, for new officers and agencies with limited resources, there is a dependence on basic training. This study examined at the impact of mental health education on knowledge and stigma at the Basic Police academy housed at the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training.

Solution Icon Research

PRIMARY RESEARCH QUESTION(S)

  1. Does the mental health portion of the basic training program significantly increase knowledge about mental health and common symptoms of psychological disorder?
  2. Does the mental health portion of the basic training program significantly reduce stigmatizing attitudes regarding PMI?

    RESEARCH DESIGN

    A sample of 196 recruits, from all parts of Oregon, was asked to complete the Mental Health Knowledge Test (MHKT) and AQ-27 voluntarily before (pretest) and after (posttest) the mental health portion of the 640-hour basic police academy. The AQ-27 is broken down into nine subscales – blame, anger, pity, help, dangerousness, fear, avoidance, segregation, and coercion. The mental health instruction consisted of 13 hours of classroom instruction and four hours of scenario training (that the curriculum has changed since the time of this study). Final analyses used 189 pre- and post-test MHKTs and 184 pre- and post- AQ-27 measures. In order to maintain confidentiality, the only demographic information collected was gender, age, and geographical setting of employment. The demographic breakdown follows:

• 85% male / 14% female

• 36% 18-25 years old / 58% 25-40 years old / 6% over 40 years old

• 39% rural / 50% urban / 10% both rural and urban

LIMITATIONS

Some limitations of this research included:

• The AQ-27 may not take into account aspects of law enforcement culture that may affect officers’ attitudes towards mental illness and the mentally ill.

• No follow-up was conducted to explore whether or not the knowledge and attitudes are sustained after an extended time.

Outcome Icon Outcome

RESEARCH FINDINGS

As a group, knowledge significantly increased and stigma significantly decreased after receiving mental health awareness instruction. Additionally, analysis indicated the five of the nine stigma subscales also decreased significantly. Anger, pity, help, and avoidance did not show a significant change.

Areas of decrease:

• Thoughts of blame for their mental illness directed at the PMI are somewhat reduced.

• Concerns about the dangerousness of the PMI are reduced.

• Officer felt somewhat less of a need to segregate the PMI from their community.

• Officers felt somewhat less fear directed at PMI.

• Officers were less likely to feel that PMI should be coerced into treatment.

Exploratory Analyses:

• Females may have more knowledge about mental health prior to training, but it did not equate to less stigmatizing attitudes towards PMI prior to training.

• No difference found between urban and rural officers in either mental health knowledge or stigma.

MAIN IMPLICATIONS

This research suggests that the basic training course is successful in its goals to increase knowledge and decrease stigma. This is consistent with prior research on more advance mental health education programs, such as Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, which show that increased knowledge about and experience with PMI leads to a decrease in use of force rates. This is an encourage indication that participation in this type of training will move law enforcement towards improved interactions with people with mental illness.

CITATION

Wise, M., Christiansen, L., & Stewart, C. (2019). Examining the Effectiveness of Mental Health Education on Law Enforcement: Knowledge and Attitudes. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, 1-7.