Training aims to help college police understand mental illness

August 20, 2013

The voices are constant. They fight each other for space in your brain. And while you try to process what they’re saying — “you’re worthless, we hate you” — you can’t believe what you’re seeing: The TV weatherman is talking to you.

“You just gonna sit around with your stupid mouth open?” he says.

The abuse goes on for six uncomfortable minutes before Candice Tyrell, a seven-year veteran of the Washington College campus police force, pulls away from the Mindstorm “psychosis simulator” and pronounces the whole thing “weird.”

“I couldn’t imagine living that way,” she said.

The experience, which mimics a schizophrenic psychotic episode through video and voices, was part of a day-long training held at Towson University on Monday for campus police and security personnel from nine Maryland schools. It was led by the Maryland chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness to help college law enforcement officials recognize — and appropriately respond to — mental illness in the wake of several high-profile incidents.

Last year, Morgan State University student Alexander Kinyua brutally beat a young man on campus and weeks later killed, dismembered and partially consumed a family friend. Kinyua, 22, pleaded guilty to the murder Monday, but a judge found him not criminally responsible because of mental illness.

And in February, a University of Maryland at College Park student shot and killed himself after murdering one of his roommates and wounding another, luring the young men outside by setting a series of fires.

Mental illnesses typically manifest in people ages 16 to 24, with some college students experiencing their first episodes while away from home, mental health professionals said. They’re often scared, confused and don’t know where to turn for help. And sometimes, they attract the attention of police, who may not know how to react to irrational behavior.

“Police are called in to provide safety, and ever increasing understanding of how to interpret the behavior of people is really key to their function. The police are not there on campus just to deal with people who are breaking the law,” said Greg Reising, director of Towson’s counseling center.

Kate Farinholt, executive director of Maryland’s National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the training was the first time the organization had focused on campus police. It came about after Towson approached the alliance about setting up a program and invited other schools to participate.

Eight signed up: Community colleges from Anne Arundel, Carroll and Baltimore counties; Loyola and Salisbury universities; Washington College in Chestertown; the University of Maryland at College Park, and the University of Baltimore.

The training was a scaled-down version of a program the alliance offers for other law enforcement agencies. Farinholt stressed that it was “really an introduction” and said she hoped that individual agencies would coordinate with their campus counselors and others to seek more instruction.

“This is only the toe in the water,” she said.

Tyrell, the Washington College officer, called the session “huge.”

“Issues [students] may have had at home are amplified [at school] because they’ve lost their support systems,” she said.

— Baltimore Sun

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