On the front lines of mental health

When Anjana Freeman, BU ’06, saw that the Gainesville Police Department was hiring a mental health clinician, the Brenau University alumna and adjunct professor of psychology said it was like the universe was sending her an invitation to do what she was meant to do.

When Freeman was growing up, her mother had a mental illness and came in contact with law enforcement officers multiple times. That, along with a fascination with the psychology field, led Freeman to pursue a career in which she could provide help and resources for people to improve their lives.

“I remember when I was a teenager, just knowing in my heart that we needed law enforcement and mental health to work together for the good of the community,” says Freeman, who earned her master’s in clinical counseling psychology from Brenau in 2006. “I’ve always had a passion for this work, and I think the kind of position I have didn’t really exist until last year in this area.”

While mental health clinicians in police departments aren’t new, many are contracted out from local behavioral health organizations. Freeman, however, is employed by the department, which makes it easier for her to get access to records and individuals who have interacted with officers in the field.

Freeman says a highlight of her job is connecting individuals with resources. If police officers suspect someone they’ve been called about or encountered is experiencing a mental health crisis, she is called to assess what type of help is needed. That could mean having the person evaluated at a crisis stabilization unit, finding housing or referring them to other mental health resources.

For Freeman, who also trained law enforcement on understanding trauma and mental health before she joined GPD, every person helped is another success story.

“With mental health, we kind of measure success differently,” Freeman says. “It’s a success if I just make contact with somebody and they walk away knowing that there is help and someone cares. They may go back and relapse and have all kinds of issues. But each time they connect with somebody who actually cares, they get closer to being able to use that resource to make a real difference.”

Cpl. Jessica Van, WC ’10, the community liaison officer with GPD, has seen the conversation about mental health and law enforcement grow during her 10 years with the police department.

“I’ve seen so much progress since I first started here,” says Van, who earned her bachelor’s in biology at Brenau. “We have a lot more training when it comes to dealing with mental health.”

Cpl. Jessica Van, WC ’10, left, serves as the Gainesville Police Department’s community liaison officer, while Anjana Freeman, BU ’06, is a mental health clinician for the GPD and an adjunct professor of psychology at Brenau.

Van often sees just how important mental health training can be in law enforcement scenarios. She interacts with the public on a daily basis, and it’s her job to help communicate during traumatic situations when emotions may be running high. Van also spends a lot of time looking over reports that have been called in to the department. If she suspects a mental health crisis may have played a role in an incident, she contacts Freeman.

“When I read reports that don’t mesh with the crime committed, it’s often someone who is going through some mental health issues,” Van says. “Whenever I have cases where I think someone might not have a safe home environment, for example, I call Anjana because she has more experience and connections to resources that can help.”

Freeman and Van say department leadership supports and encourages them to make changes, especially when it comes to mental health.

“I am beyond grateful and honored that our community has pulled all resources to help embrace our agency’s mental health program,” says Gainesville Police Chief Jay Parrish. “It’s a vision I’ve had for a long time, and it’s rewarding to see this vision come to fruition. Adding mental health training and providing additional resources for our officers essentially provides better long-term solutions for everyone involved, when before we were limited to short-term solutions.”

Van and Freeman also give back to the Brenau community. Van has helped teach self-defense classes at the university, while Freeman works with Master of Clinical Counseling Psychology students during their internships with the GPD. During the internships, the students learn the process of supporting people when mental health and law enforcement intersect.

“The integration of mental health personnel into law enforcement is a relatively new venture, so being able to get graduate students trained at this early stage is very exciting,” says Julie Battle, chair of the Lynn J. Darby School of Psychology and Adolescent Counseling. “More and more law enforcement agencies are beginning to see the benefit of having licensed mental health professionals on their teams.”

Battle says students who already have experience working with law enforcement are at an advantage when they graduate.

“They will be prepared to help other law enforcement agencies establish a mental health presence,” Battle says. “Having mental health personnel integrated into law enforcement agencies is extremely important for the health and safety of officers as well as for the health and safety of those who come into contact with officers.”

Freeman is glad to see more mental health professionals become integrated into law enforcement — and she’s ecstatic that current and future Brenau interns are a part of the change.

“What I wake up excited about is that I think we’re making a cultural shift,” she says. “I think that we’re at the beginning of something really huge, and that is this co-responding mental health and law enforcement. I just believe in 20 years, it’s going to be unheard of that mental health clinicians were not involved in law enforcement. It’s exciting to be at the beginning of that.”

You must be logged in to post a comment.