Campus police get mental illness training

The voices are constant. They fight each other for space in your brain, and while you try to process what they're saying — "You're worthless, we hate you" — you can't believe what you're seeing: the TV weatherman talking directly to you.

"You just gonna sit around with your stupid mouth open?" he says.

The abuse goes on for six uncomfortable minutes before Candice Tyrell, a seven-year veteran of the Washington College campus police force, pulls away from the Mindstorm "psychosis simulator" and pronounces the whole thing "weird."

"I couldn't imagine living that way," she said.

The experience, which mimics a schizophrenic psychotic episode through video and voices, was part of a daylong training session held at Towson University on Monday for campus police and security personnel from nine Maryland schools. It was led by the Maryland chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness to help college law enforcement recognize — and appropriately respond to — mental illness in the aftermath of several high-profile incidents.

Last year, Morgan State University student Alexander Kinyua brutally beat a young man on campus, then weeks later killed, dismembered and partially consumed a family friend in Harford County. Kinyua, 22, pleaded guilty to the murder Monday, but a judge found him not criminally responsible because of mental illness.

And in February, a University of Maryland, College Park student shot and killed himself after killing one of his roommates and wounding another, luring the young men outside by setting a series of fires.

Mental illnesses typically manifest in young people, ages 16 to 24, with some college students experiencing their first episodes while away from home, mental health professionals said. They're often scared, confused and don't know where to turn for help. And sometimes, they attract the attention of police, who may not know how to react to erratic, irrational behavior.

"Police are called in to provide safety and ever-increasing understanding of how to interpret the behavior of people is really key to their function. The police are not there on campus just to deal with people who are breaking the law," said Greg Reising, director of Towson's counseling center.

"That is what the training is there to help differentiate: Someone not really actually threatening might cause others to feel threatened because their behavior is so unusual," Reising said. Police are "there to support students who may not be able to handle themselves in that situation, and safely and gracefully get them to help."

Kate Farinholt, executive director of Maryland's National Alliance on Mental Illness, said the training was the first time the organization has focused on campus police. It came about after Towson approached the alliance about setting up a program, then invited other schools to participate.

Eight signed up: Community colleges from Anne Arundel, Carroll and Baltimore counties along with Loyola and Salisbury universities, Washington College and the University of Maryland, Baltimore and the University of Baltimore.

About four dozen representatives met in a lounge space at Towson on Monday morning. They heard from two young women who struggled with depression among other ailments while they were in school. Participants spent most of the day role-playing, with some pretending to be people dealing with mental illness and the others playing themselves.

The training was a scaled-down version of an intensive program the alliance offers other law enforcement agencies. Farinholt stressed repeatedly that it was "really an introduction" and said her hope was that the individual agencies would then coordinate with their campus counselors and others to seek more instruction.

"This is only the toe in the water," she said.

The Mindstorm psychosis simulator, for example, gives users a few minutes of insight into the mind of a person who's hallucinating. That experiential process goes on for several hours in the typical training, Farinholt said. Officers have to go out into the community and accomplish certain tasks, all while listening to voices through headphones.

The training is "also about liability," Farinholt said. "Should [schools] be sued for something bad that happens," they can show a good-faith effort to protect students.

Last month, a Baltimore judge ruled that a lawsuit can go forward against Morgan State University contending that the historically black college failed to protect its students from Kinyua despite signs of trouble.

Kinyua pleaded guilty in December to beating Joshua Ceasar with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire, blinding him in one eye. He was also found not guilty in that case, because he "was suffering from a mental illness at the time of the offense," specifically paranoid schizophrenia, Baltimore Circuit Judge Gale Rasin said.

Morgan officials did not attend Monday's training, but spokesman Jarrett Carter said police undertook separate mental health training this summer and that the university has developed a threat assessment team to help recognize mental illness in students and refer them for treatment.

Farinholt said the success of Monday's training could determine whether alliance affiliates may want to offer similar programs nationwide. Interest has been pouring in from all over, she said.

Tyrell, the Washington College officer, called the session "huge."

"Issues [students] may have had at home are amplified [at school] because they've lost their support systems," she said, adding that she expected the training to give her "a little bit better understanding of how to handle students that have issues and how to handle situations with a better outcome."

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