Working to remove the stigma from mental illness

Amy Watson

Amy Watson: “The public has misguided ideas of what it means to have mental illness.” Photo: Jenny Fontaine/UIC Public Affairs

Police officers face special challenges when dealing with individuals who have mental illness, and Amy Watson is here to help.

She and her team in the Jane Addams College of Social Work are carrying out a study funded by $3.1 million from the National Institute of Mental Health.

They will look at the effectiveness of a police approach that uses Crisis Intervention Teams, or CIT.

“They coordinate with mental health providers,” said Watson, associate professor of social work. “CIT-trained officers are working in all of Chicago’s 22 districts.”

Specially trained officers will take people who show signs of experiencing mental health crises to hospitals for emergency assessments, or refer them to providers.

“They’re trained to recognize symptoms and de-escalate tense situations,” she said. “They give people time to calm down.”

People experiencing acute mental health symptoms may be agitated and appear to be hearing voices.

“Often they don’t follow instructions immediately because they are filtering out other stimuli,” Watson said.

The police training includes a session with family members of people with serious mental illness.

“They often share stories of situations in which they feel the police were helpful with their loved one, as well as those in which they felt officers did not respond appropriately because they lacked training and understanding,” Watson said.

She said training can make a big difference.

“Many officers, whether CIT-trained or not, do a decent job responding to mental health crisis calls,” she said.

“However, CIT-trained officers have a few additional tools in their toolbox that may decrease the likelihood that a call will escalate and result in use of force and injuries. Non-CIT officers may also be less aware of potential options for referring people to services.”

In another facet of Watson’s work, she is studying the stigma of mental illness. She works with the Center for Adherence and Self-Determination and previously was affiliated with the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research.

“People may be blocked from housing, jobs and relationships because the public has misguided ideas of what it means to have mental illness,” she explained.

This effort is also NIH-funded.

Watson is a former probation officer for DuPage County. She worked with individuals with mental illnesses sentenced to probation to make sure they understood the conditions of probation and helped link them to services.

“Sometimes they were court-ordered to go to mental health or substance abuse treatment, or complete job training or community service,” she said.

She is following cases handled by CIT-trained officers to see if subjects are still linked to services or had additional contacts with police a year later.

Watson grew up in La Grange. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Aurora University and a master’s and Ph.D. in social service administration from the University of Chicago, joining UIC in 2005. She lives in Brookfield with her daughter, Shannon, 16, and son, Sean, 13.

Watson spends time with fictional cops too. She’s a fan of Scandinavian crime fiction, including the novels of Henning Mankell and Maj Sjowall and her partner, Per Wahloo.

“And Jo Nesbo,” she added. “I just finished his most recent book, Police.

Asked what she finds most rewarding about her work, Watson said, “I get to work with really smart and passionate people — including police officers, clinicians, advocates, persons with mental illnesses and other researchers — to move the field forward and improve the lives of persons with mental illnesses and their families.”

What’s the hardest thing about what you do?

“Patience,” she replied. “The research process takes a long time and is fraught with administrative and bureaucratic tangles.”

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