Date August 3, 2023
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Liz Gledhill: Helping law enforcement officers respond more meaningfully to mental health crises

The Brown University master of public health student is developing tools that first responders can use to de-escalate a mental health crisis and connect people to the resources they need.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Liz Gledhill loves the work she does at Thundermist Health Center, where she has served since 2019 as the statewide training coordinator for the center’s crisis intervention team based in Wakefield, Rhode Island.

The team creates connections between different local and state agencies, including law enforcement and hospital emergency services, and individuals with mental illness and their families, with an overarching goal to improve crisis response for people with mental health disorders.

Since enrolling in Brown University’s master of public health program, Gledhill has been looking at her role from multiple perspectives, always with an eye towards health equity.

One thing she noticed is that first responders who have successfully de-escalated a mental health crisis with an individual are often stymied by basic health questions, such as, “Where can I get something to eat?” or “How can I find a doctor?” When Gledhill talks to police officers during crisis intervention trainings, they report not knowing what humanitarian aid resources to offer people during mental health emergencies.

But as a public health professional, Gledhill knows what’s available — and she’s devising ways to get that information into the hands of those who need it.

“So many of our patients are negatively impacted by their interaction with police,” Gledhill said. “We have an obligation to ensure our patients and our communities are safe and cared for. Crisis Intervention Training directly addresses our patients’ interactions with police by providing first responders with the tools they need to be empathetic and safe community partners whenever a person experiences a mental health crisis.” 

Students enrolled in the MPH program at the Brown University School of Public Health are required to complete an applied practice experience in which they translate what they’ve learned in class to a practical work or internship experience. The program provides them with resources to connect with learning experiences, but Gledhill already had a proposal of her own.

Summer project harnesses technology to promote public health

For her project, Gledhill is spending the summer collecting resources for first responders that can be accessed via a QR code. She’ll hand out business cards with the code during crisis intervention trainings, and when scanned with a phone, it will bring users to a website that she’ll keep up to date with county-specific health resources.

“First responders will have all the information in one place and can share it in real time, in person,” Gledhill said. “For example, if an officer in South Kingstown is assisting someone who says they need help with medication management, the officer can scan the code, look up Washington County and find a current list of mental health providers. If the person in crisis needs food, the officer can look up the closest food pantry and send the person there.”

Gledhill’s solution is a more technologically advanced version of the resource list she has traditionally printed out to hand to officers, plus it’s more current and therefore reliable, she said.

“This could be really beneficial for the officers and the people they’re assisting,” she said.

The motivation behind the project is the same that spurred Gledhill to enroll in Brown’s MPH program.

“I really wanted to deepen my knowledge around health equity and how I can improve access to health care — because Rhode Island has so many resources to offer yet a lot of people just can't get to them when they need them,” Gledhill said.

After her start at Thundermist, Gledhill met some researchers at the organization who are affiliated with Brown’s School of Public Health and was impressed with their knowledge, training and skills. She was initially apprehensive about going back to school herself. She’d been away from the rhythms of a classroom for over a decade, and is now raising three kids: two 10-year-olds and a 15-month-old. And while she’d had a successful career in politics (until 2021, she was chair of the Rhode Island Democratic Women’s Caucus) and has been gaining responsibility at Thundermist, she had no prior academic training in public health (her previous education was in baking and pastry arts).

Yet Gledhill is finding that the MPH program aligns with her goals even more than she expected.

“In my qualitative analysis class, we went over interviewing skills — how to meet people in the community, engage them in a thoughtful way, ask unbiased questions and extract useful information,” Gledhill said. “Those are such practical skills that I was able to use in my work that same week, which was really exciting.”

She’s hoping to use the public health leadership preparation and skills she’s developing in the program to eventually transition into a role more broadly focused on health equity and community partnerships.

“I think that when you have some experience working in the field, and especially with marginalized populations or within the public health sector, you get a lot out of the program,” Gledhill said. “I'm really grateful that Brown was able to see in my application that just because I don't have a traditional academic background, that doesn't mean that I'm not qualified for the MPH program.”

She’s also finding that one of the things that made her feel like an unconventional fit — years of experience in the workforce, among the community, and outside of academia — is enriching her experience and, she hopes, those of fellow students in her cohort.

Gledhill enjoys sharing news and insights from her work in the community, especially as a liaison between law enforcement and people with mental health disorders, with classmates and teachers. She looks forward to the poster presentation about her project that she’ll deliver when returning to campus.

“I can’t wait to show classmates my project and talk to them about what I've done over the summer,” she said.