Squad car with building in backgroundEncounters between law enforcement and individuals with mental illness can quickly turn dangerous, especially when emergency personnel aren’t properly equipped to understand and defuse a situation as it unfolds. But what if every emergency responder was trained to effectively manage behavioral health crises? That’s the question driving the Michigan Crisis Intervention System (MI-CIS), a program developed by the Western Michigan University School of Medicine (WMed).

MI-CIS is a standardized curriculum for all first responders, including dispatch, police, EMS, corrections officers, emergency department physicians & personnel, and school staff. And it’s already becoming a national model for its innovative combination of virtual and in-person training. Both of these elements play an important role in the program’s effectiveness.

The online components allow flexibility: participants can learn at their own pace, and departments can enroll more personnel in the training because they save on travel and labor costs. Critically, MI-CIS does more than put videos and slides on a website. Todd Christensen, who leads the project for WMed, says they didn’t want the online training to feel like a tired old textbook. So the program engages participants with features like interactive videos, games, and narrated text.

At a couple key points in the program, in-person training helps hard-wire the lessons and skills from the online courses. Scenario training such as role playing includes professional monitors to evaluate and offer feedback, adding value that can’t currently be virtually replicated. These exercises are more immersive and, well, more than you get with a typical training.

This hybrid approach is a major step up from those traditional programs, which typically find agency employees taking a week away from their regular duties to spend 40 hours listening to lectures, and maybe participating in a role-playing exercise. The curriculum varies widely across communities and among different statewide agencies, meaning a police officer who changes jobs might have to retake courses, adopt outdated techniques, and manage mixed messages from various levels of bureaucratic oversight. Though it’s an upgrade, MI-CIS is more cost effective than traditional programs, owing to its distance learning components and, hopefully, its scalability.

Scaling shouldn’t be too big of an issue. In fact, demand is so high—even though the program isn’t finalized—that Christensen has fielded inquiries from well outside the pilot area of Kalamazoo, including agencies all over Michigan and metropolitan police departments from across the country. So far, MI-CIS training has been incorporated by 43 different agencies across Michigan, including police, sheriff, and fire departments as well as ambulance agencies, police academies, hospitals, medical schools and community mental health agencies.

Personnel Trained as of December 1, 2018

Awareness Course 456
Operations Phase I 318
Operations Phase II 158
Training Managers Course 89

Beyond the agencies interested in or incorporating the training, Christensen says the program has benefitted from buy-in among stakeholders like local social service organizations, universities, membership and advocacy nonprofits, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs. The question hasn’t been how to recruit for the program, but how to make it widely available as soon as possible and collaborate with the growing number of interested partners.

Another challenge for any new program is sustainability. In addition to $500,000 in support from the Health Fund, MI-CIS has recently been awarded a $150,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. Christensen says the program is now seeking funding to continue the program in 2020 and beyond.

Despite the fact that MI-CIS feels like part of a major sea change, Christensen is careful to note that they’re not reinventing the wheel. The program is built using industry-standard sources like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as well as existing resources like Khan Academy educational videos. Rather than revealing a breakthrough new methodology, the program’s value lies in its thoughtful, user-centered design and its potential to centralize and standardize what has been scattered and inconsistent.

And the ultimate beneficiaries of this work are not the people who participate in the training, but rather the people they serve. Individuals with mental illness face myriad barriers to getting well, but they are safer if emergency responders have the best knowledge and skills to address behavioral health crises. In turn, families, neighbors, and entire communities can rest easier, knowing that those tasked with serving and protecting our communities are trained to recognize trauma and respond to duress, rather than fall victim to it.

More info:

Follow MI-CIS on Facebook: @MICrisisInterventionSystem

Follow MI-CIS on Twitter: @cis_mi


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