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From criminalization to care

An alumni-involved pilot response program and new Human Services study options for Roadrunners change the narrative on emergency calls.

By Cory Phare

August 10, 2020

Blurred image of person sitting in an empty hallway.Imagine this scenario: A person calls 911 for a noncriminal emergency – a mental-health problem or drug overdose. Instead of police officers, a paramedic and clinician are dispatched.

Thanks to the Support Team Assisted Response pilot program, it’s not just imagination.

“When officers approach a situation, they’re looking for whether a crime has been committed,” said Vinnie Cervantes, the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response’s program contact and a Metropolitan State University of Denver alumnus, in a recent 5280 magazine article detailing the approach. “Whereas STAR’s team approaches somebody with questions about whether they can be treated on the spot or whether they needed to be treated elsewhere.

“It’s the difference between looking for treatment versus looking for punishment.”

That paradigmatic shift can make a world of impact. And it’s part of the impetus behind the MSU Denver Department of Human Services and Counseling’s introduction of new programs to prepare students for the evolving nature of field-based care faced by today’s practitioners.

“A big part of mental-health practice is meeting people with respect and dignity where they are,” said Annie Butler, professor and department chair. “There’s a real skill that goes into establishing rapport in the moment to deescalate a situation.”

The department’s new minor/concentration in trauma studies is structured to do just that, refocusing the central question from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

Additionally, the Master of Science in Clinical Behavioral Health with an emphasis in Addictions Counseling sets up participants for the credentialing necessary to deal with substance use. Students in the graduate program will qualify to sit for a Master Addictions Counselor exam to earn their License in Addictions Counseling; with an additional internship, they may also qualify to complete their exam to become a Licensed Professional Counselor. 

“We’re introducing these new programs to help students respond to what they’re going to be working with out in the field,” Butler said. “The STAR program exemplifies that. We’re not saying police don’t have a role in certain situations, but with more awareness on mental-health issues, we can respond more directly to a situation without necessarily having to criminalize it.”

Shifting that response strategy is at the heart of these efforts. And it could have a huge ripple effect on how we as a society view crime and care.

Watch more about the STAR van and Cervantes’ effort in this segment from Vice News.

Topics: Academics, Best practices, Community, Graduate programs

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