CLEMSON — Clemson University faculty and police have received a grant award from the 2019 Justice Mental Health Collaboration Program to design a strategy that improves responses and connection to treatment for people with mental health disorders. The focus of the research project will be Clemson University and surrounding areas, including Anderson, Oconee and Pickens counties.

Photo of Bryan Miller delivering a lecture to students at Clemson University.

Bryan Miller delivers a lecture to students at Clemson University.
Image Credit: Clemson University

Bryan Miller, associate professor in Clemson’s sociology, anthropology and criminal justice department, will serve as scientific consultant for the project. He said the project represents the first step for faculty, police and mental health professionals as they discover what the most effective next steps will be in police training in the area of mental health.

Miller said the combination of students and the general public on Clemson’s campus — during an average weekday or a crowded game day — make it an ideal area to study. He said the lessons learned along the way will be valuable to other departments and areas that surround the university.

“Clemson’s convergence of populations is something to which officers must be prepared to respond, so we’re hoping that this project will shed some light on best practices for them,” Miller said. “It speaks to the leadership of the university’s Police Department that they want to be a leading force in the area of effective police response to mental health disorders.”

Lt. Chris Harrington, director of professional development and training for the Clemson University Police Department, is the project’s coordinator. He said that with a decrease in ready access to mental health services, the interactions between law enforcement and people with mental health disorders has increased.

According to police records, service calls for well-being checks have increased from 110 in 2016 to 174 in 2018. The issue of gaps in response to people with mental health issues is certainly not exclusive to Clemson’s campus and they go beyond city or even region.

Mental Health America ranked South Carolina ranked the 15 states with the most adults struggling with mental illness; the report estimates that 17.6 percent of adults in the state struggle with some type of mental health issue. The same report ranks the state as 37th in the nation for access to mental health care.

Photo of Lt. Chris Harrington of the Clemson University Police Department and other officers

Lt. Chris Harrington of the Clemson University Police Department (foreground) provides instructions for prior to an active shooter exercise for first responders in March 2019.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

“We provide as much training as possible to our officers, but we’re still only able to scratch the surface of what we’re asking officers to be equipped to do,” Harrington said. “This project will give us the opportunity to look at what we’re training them to do, how much training they’re getting and how it’s incorporated.”

The project team plans to use two primary programs, Crisis Intervention Training and Mental Health First Aid, to train officers to respond effectively and recognize early warning signs of mental health issues. Harrington said that in the past the department would send officers to these specific trainings whenever possible, but the grant will allow officers to obtain certifications so they can in turn train other CUPD officers.

Immediate goals would be to have all CUPD personnel trained in these programs, from the dispatchers who take 911 calls to the officers who respond. The ultimate goal, according to Harrington, is to get to a state in which CUPD operates a “co-responder model,” which would allow officers to connect people with mental health services 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“Police departments are often the only thing that’s open 24 hours for people in need,” Harrington said. “Effective first responders will make a stronger case for more clinical resources from partners both in Clemson and surrounding areas.”

One of those partners is Kevin Hoyle, executive director for Anderson-Oconee-Pickens Mental Health Center, which is a facility that falls under the South Carolina Department of Mental Health. Hoyle will participate in the project as lead community mental health partner. He was made aware of the project by Greg Mullen, Clemson University’s police chief and associate vice president for public safety, who had expressed interest in partnering with the center outside of occasional consulting Hoyle’s staff had done in the past at the university.

Hoyle said there often is a big difference between major offenders and people with mental health issues who end up in a jail cell when what they need most is effective treatment. Partnering with law enforcement will increase the chances that people in the latter category get to the right place and stay out of the criminal justice system unnecessarily.

Hoyle also is interested in pursuing the “co-responder model,” but he sees the prevention aspects that the project will cultivate as equally important. He said the training programs that the project team is looking to implement emphasize early warning signs that anyone — police officers and the general public — can recognize, and they also work to increase understanding of connections to mental health services on the front end for officers and all members of a community.

“Cultivating the ability of officers and people in surrounding communities to identify mental health issues early on can head off issues with law enforcement entirely, which is of course the best-case scenario,” Hoyle said. “I think I speak for all partners in this project when I say we’re really excited to have a more involved relationship with Clemson University and its police department in order to address the issue at both ends.”

The project is supported by the Anderson-Oconee-Pickens Mental Health Center, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the South Carolina Autism Society, the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office, the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office, the City of Clemson Police Department, the Easley Police Department, the Clemson Center for Behavior Analysis, Clemson Student Health Services, the Clemson University School of Health Research, Clemson Student Affairs, and J. Mitchell Miller, professor and Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences Fellow.