Batten Professor and Students are Helping Communities Rethink the Way They Respond to Mental Health Crises

Batten Professor Brian N. Williams
Batten Professor Brian N. Williams and students from his lab are working with an award-winning documentary team to launch pilot programs in three different cities to address the growing mental health crisis. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications.)

One in five, or more than 47 million, people in the U.S. are currently living with a mental health condition. This number reflects an increase of nearly 1.5 million people in 2021 alone as the pandemic continues to negatively impact mental health in Americans across the country. But reported mental health issues have been rising consistently for years, even prior to the pandemic. In response, the federal government passed bipartisan legislation to extend mental health support services but it will ultimately be up to individual communities to implement the new legislation. Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy Professor Brian N. Williams has become a leader in the efforts. Williams, working alongside Batten students, is spearheading the launch of a new mental health crisis hotline in three different communities as nationwide pilot programs.

In 1968 the national emergency hotline (911) was inaugurated. It transformed the ability of first responders to dispatch services in times of crisis. A new hotline will soon be available to duplicate the success of 911 but tailored to the unique needs of mental health crises. The suicide prevention hotline number was shortened to 988 with the hopes of providing compassionate response to those in crisis while also providing increased support for the first responders asked to step into often volatile mental health situations.

Williams, who became involved in the project in partnership with a documentary film crew, has enrolled the help of Batten School students through his capstone course and leadership lab (PEGLLLLab). They are convening community residents to discuss 988 number roll out in three different locales. The communities are Charlottesville, Va., Athens, Ga. and Thomasville, Ga. Yet the implementation for each community is as different and diverse as the communities themselves.

“This work matters to me because I aspire to be a lifelong learner and I have a growing appreciation for life and its complexity and simplicity,” said Williams. “When I reflect upon my life and observe those that I am in community with, I have come to the conclusion that crises are a part of the human experience.

Williams met the film crew of the award-winning HBO documentary film team of “Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops” when he served as a panelist during an event based on the film. As they realized a shared vision to help communities around the country reconsider mental health crisis response, a natural affiliation was formed.

“While making my previous documentary, Mothers of Bedford, I became aware of the connection between mental health and our prison system,” said Jenifer McShane, the film’s producer and director. “My goal has been to inspire communities to think through potential improvements to mental health crisis response. Also, my hope is to elevate the topic of mental health and to use the film to encourage people to talk about uncomfortable issues, hopefully reducing mental health stigma and creating space for community collaboration.”

“When we met Professor Williams,” McShane continued, “it was clear he understood what our documentary had the capacity to do and how it could help people on a local level. After brainstorming together with advocates and educators about next steps for the film's outreach campaign, Professor Williams and the documentary's outreach team conceived of this project.”

Williams believes a crucial component of the 988 number’s success is to help community members notice the difference between a psychiatric episode and a criminal incident. Williams, who teaches a course at Batten on police and community relations, has research suggesting that if witnesses are aware when a situation is a mental health issue and not a criminal act, things are less likely to escalate.

These issues don’t have boundaries – no person, demographic, profession, or community is immune from them. Because of this common ground, we have an opportunity to engage in collective and corrective action.

Brian N. Williams
Associate Professor Public Policy

This is illustrated in the documentary, which follows two San Antonio area police officers over the course of three years. Ernie and Joe are responders trained specifically in de-escalation tactics in response to mental health-related emergency calls.

The film, which has been streaming on HBO since November 2019, often prompts audiences to launch a discussion around how a response program can potentially be replicated in their own community, the film team discovered. Williams has found that using the documentary to foster conversations has been a powerful tool.

“Again and again, I have heard people open up about their own experiences after watching the film,” McShane said.

Williams acknowledged that policing and public safety are sensitive topics but believes that current responses harm not only those experiencing mental trauma but also the first responders. He said solutions proposed by communities need to acknowledge the fear and trauma that officers are carrying, which is why bringing everyone to the table for these community conversations is imperative.

“We all share the difficulties that come with life and the resulting mental and behavioral health issues that arise come when trying to cope with stressful situations,” said Williams. “These issues don’t have boundaries – no person, demographic, profession, or community is immune from them. Because of this common ground, we have an opportunity to engage in collective and corrective action.”

As part of his work, Williams and the PEGLLLLab students will host public events in the pilot program areas. These will bring community stakeholders together to discuss how mental health crises can be viewed with compassion, what changes could potentially be made to current community responses, and what challenges impede a successful 988 number launch.

Williams encourages leaders to consider how to motivate the public to invest capital – inclusive of political capital – to address the growing mental health crisis in America.

“That’s the decision we have to make as a community, because it goes back to what are we willing to invest in,” Williams said. “Are we willing to provide the needed resources in communities to help not only those in crisis, but also to help and heal those who are affected by responding?”

An event will be held in Charlottesville on April 27th at the Jefferson School and African-American Heritage Center. First-responders, mental health workers, public officials and policymakers, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, students and community members are all encouraged to participate. Registration is now online.

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