Pa. Corrections Workers Finish First Phase of Mental Health Training

About a quarter of Pennsylvania prison inmates have some mental health issue, and now the state Department of Corrections is moving to get them the help they need.

The department has completed the first phase of a mandatory mental health training program for its employees. The instruction was part of a settlement agreement with the Disability Rights Network, which sued over moving inmates with serious mental issues into solitary confinement.

Employees received eight hours of training in Mental Health First Aid, a program for first responders, said Michael Dooley, the department's director of training services.

"It basically gives them a level of understanding of what exactly is going on and then how to de-escalate any kinds of behaviors associated with the mental illness, until we can get that person in the right hands or with the appropriate help or support," said Dooley.

Officers who work in the prisons' mental health units will receive 36 hours of additional training in crisis intervention.

The department says about 24 percent of inmates experience some kind of mental health issue, and 8 percent of them are diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

Kirk Heilbrun, co-director of the Pennsylvania Mental Health and Justice Center for Excellence at Drexel University, said police officers could use the same training to keep people out of the prison system.

"An example might be where an officer goes to a home and finds out someone has serious problems with mental illness, active symptoms," said Heilbrun.

"And rather than arresting that person and taking them to jail, the officer who was trained in crisis intervention knows enough in that area to take that person to a psychiatric emergency room."

Heilbrun said 44 counties across the state are interested in police officer training or establishing "problem solving courts" to help keep those with mental illness out of the criminal justice system.

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