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JMU professors aid effort to increase local mental health crisis intervention efforts

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More than 160 people with mental health concerns and facing entry into the judicial system have been served by crisis response teams in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County since September with funding from a $750,000 federal grant obtained by a pair of James Madison University professors.

The Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Grant, written by political science professors Amanda Teye and Lili Peaslee, has been used to hire a full-time licensed clinician who responds with law enforcement officers to incidents involving individuals with mental health issues. In addition, the grant is being used to provide services for women in the justice system who require mental health support, including paying for residential treatment at a newly opened Gemeinschaft Women’s Home in Harrisonburg.

A hefty increase in the number of area law enforcement officers who are getting mental health crisis intervention training is also being funded by the grant from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Teye said research has shown these kinds of approaches have reduced instances of harm to officers and citizens, reduced use-of-force incidents and cut down on arrests of people with mental illness who can be better-served by community-based services rather than the justice system.

“It’s just a different approach to dealing with these special populations of individuals,” Teye said.

Officers who respond to emergency calls involving individuals with mental illness can call for backup from the crisis response team when it is safe to do so. Police also have a network of community partners, including the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board, to refer cases. Harrisonburg and Rockingham County jointly funded a part-time crisis response team, which continues to operate, before the addition of the full-time team funded by the grant.

“We are really excited about this project,” Peaslee said. “It is designed to better support members of our community who have mental illness and co-occurring substance abuse challenges. By doing so, we hope to reduce over-reliance on emergency services and criminal justice responses, which tend to be both costly and ineffective at addressing the underlying reasons for calls for service.”

A new database is helping police and clinicians responding to calls as well. Police responding to emergencies can see if a person has a history of mental illness and thus be better prepared for how to proceed.

Teye said the new approaches would not be possible without collaboration from the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board and Rockingham-Harrisonburg Court Services.

Ann Marie Freeman, director of the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Court Services Unit, said, “I am so proud to be a part of this active community resource that can be proactively involved in addressing the mental health issues of persons in crisis in a way that promotes safety, security and support. This support benefits not only persons struggling in crisis, but also the service providers and, ultimately, the community.”


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