Becky Rowe (MSW ’21) has an unusual career for a social worker. She works as a crisis counselor for a police department. The pairing of social workers with police officers is part of a program called REACH, which was developed at the University of Illinois by several UIPD employees who also earned their MSWs from the School of Social Work.
As part of the UIPD’s REACH program (Response, Evaluation and Crisis Help), Rowe spends the majority of her 10-hour shifts riding along with Behavioral Health Detective Officer Alex Tran and his K9 therapy dog, Lollipop, responding to mental health emergency calls. (The department has more than 40 officers trained as crisis intervention officers; of those, four are primary behavioral health detectives along with four backup behavioral health officers who assist when other behavioral health detectives are off duty.)
In addition to initially responding to mental health crises in the community, REACH staff follows up within the first few days of the crisis to make sure that those who need it have access to long-term care. REACH staff do not provide that long-term care themselves, but they have established relationships with campus and community resources that do.
“Our primary focus as crisis workers is in suicide prevention and hospital deferral when clinically appropriate,” says Rowe. “We bring evidence-based tools directly to the client, in the field.”
Pairing Officers With Social Workers
At the direction of Chief Alice Cary, REACH was started in 2021 by Lt. Aaron Landers, MSW, who almost immediately hired Megan Cambron, LCSW, and another MSW graduate from the University of Illinois to direct the mental health portion of the program. After Lt. Landers unexpectedly passed away in August 2021, the team doubled their efforts to carry on his vision. Cambron oversees the program. REACH currently has three social workers with MSWs on staff: Megan Cambron, LCSW, Rowe, and Amanda Goodwin.
The crisis counselors are paired with officers who have a special interest in crisis response, as well as additional training in the area of mental health. “Officers have been de facto mental health providers for years, which is a lot to expect of them,” says Rowe. “It’s great to be able to offer a respite to our police officers in responding to mental health crises.
The Crisis Counselor’s Responsibilities
When a dispatcher determines that there is a mental health component to a 911 call, he or she dispatches a Behavioral Health Detective (BHD) unit, which often includes a social worker. Once the officer assesses that the scene is safe and secure, the social worker takes the lead in talking with the person in crisis. The social worker clinically assesses the situation and consults with the person in crisis regarding the next steps.
“That could include providing immediate supportive therapy and listening support, creating a safety plan, or connecting people with helpful resources,” Rowe says.
The social worker might also obtain consent to communicate with other university departments and community agencies to provide additional assistance. At times, a call will result in the BHD unit transporting the person to a safe location, and it will always be followed up with additional contact to ensure that the person is getting the help they need.
“I particularly like to be there with a person in acute need,” Rowe says. “In most cases, I can build rapport in an authentic way. You don’t always get the ‘feel goods’ in social work, but when you’re giving someone a different perspective, helping them see a different path, and they start to get it, that’s a teaching component that is very gratifying.”
Need for More Social Workers
The UIPD received 175 crisis intervention calls from August 21, 2021, to March 22, 2022. “Our REACH team responded to fifty-two of those calls,” Rowe says, “which means the rest of the time, we didn’t have a social worker on duty. Our police officers responded, but not a REACH unit.”
That data, in addition to an expanded UIPD footprint on campus beginning in October, means “we probably need another social worker on duty, at night, because that’s when the majority of the mental health crisis calls come in,” she says.
In addition to responding to crises calls, the BHD units make their presence known on campus. “A lot of what we do is community-based,” Rowe explains. “When we’re out walking on campus, we’re walking with the dogs, and we’ll hear a student call out from across the quad, ‘Hey, Lollipop!’ It’s all about human connection.”
Great Support from the School of Social Work
Rowe says her MSW has helped her in many ways, including a vital function: documenting data to illuminate the need for greater funding to provide for additional social workers on the force. “Statistics gave me hives in school,” she laughs, “but it is helping me quantify the data that will help us continue to provide this really important service to people.”
Her experience with the School of Social Work, Rowe adds, was wonderful. “The professors were amazingly supportive. I can’t thank them enough for their support and encouragement,” she says.
She would be remiss, she says, if she “didn’t give a shout-out to BHWELL,” which is a clinical certificate and scholarship program for MSW students to learn team-based models for integrating health and mental health services in primary care settings in rural and under served areas.
“BHWELL helped me to narrow my focus to mental health and healthcare,” Rowe says. “In my role today, I am using both areas of study.”
An MSW: So Many Options
Rowe didn’t go back for her MSW until she was 50 years old. And she’s thrilled she did.
“If you’re thinking about enrolling in the program but have reservations, do what I did,” she says. “Take a class as a non-degree-seeking student and get some exposure to the program. Reach out to professors. This is an excellent school with people who are invested in your success!”
And that success, she adds, can have many looks.
“I wanted to have options in life,” Rowe says. “And that’s exactly what my MSW gave me. An MSW is so expansive! There’s so much you can do with it. It’s as much as you want to make of it. It really is.”