WSU School of Social Work partners with multiple agencies in crisis response initiative

Often law enforcement officers are called to a situation that involves an individual experiencing mental health symptoms – or symptoms related to drug misuse - that can be interpreted as dangerous to that individual or others. Although there has been more robust training of law enforcement in response to these types of crises, there are also national efforts to overhaul the system and change who responds to such calls. With the introduction of the 988 suicide and crisis lifeline, launched in 2022, calls of distress or crisis involving behavioral health issues are routed to mental health professionals. Mental health professionals, such as social workers, are working as ‘co-responders’ with law enforcement, independently in mobile crisis units or within call centers. These changes within the field have been monumental for our community and the Wayne State University School of Social Work (SSW) is responding in multiple ways.

“It is important that we take a look at crisis response holistically and learn what techniques really work toward providing needed services and prevent criminal legal involvement for communities in Michigan,” stated SSW Dean and Center for Behavioral Health and Justice (CBHJ) founder Sheryl Kubiak.  “As a School of Social Work with a specialized center at the intersection of behavioral health and the criminal/legal system - focused on diversion and deflection - we are in unique position to tap into a wealth of specialized knowledge from our community partners and WSU faculty and staff. In addition, we are excited to welcome Amy Watson, a nationally recognized expert in crisis response, as a new faculty member this fall. Amy has already begun consulting with us on the development and operation of the programming to get things up and running.”

Center for Behavioral Health and Justice

The Center of Behavioral Health and Justice (CBHJ) housed with the School of Social Work, which opened in 2018, has been on the forefront of documenting the variation in crisis response at the municipal level. Leonard Swanson, manager of the CBHJ’s crisis response initiative, has led a multi-faceted research and programs involving partners from several state organizations including the Michigan Department of Human Health and Human Services, community mental health service providers, and law enforcement agencies.

The goal of this initiative is to determine how effective different response models are in providing needed support and continuum of care. “Our state has started to expand its availability of mobile crisis and co-response teams in the last couple of years,” stated Swanson.  “Recent changes in the way our public mental health organizations are funded, thanks to Senator Debbie Stabenow, have supported an expansion of mobile services. Although we have made strides, based on my research, we need to continue to enhance programming and respond to crises more effectively in Michigan.”

“Currently there are some great national models of co-response, but there are few empirical studies of the effectiveness of these models,” noted Kubiak. “The multiphase project that Leonard and his team are engaged in will result in outcome data later this year, allowing comparisons among various response models. It is important that as social workers we employ data driven best practices to ensure we are providing the most effective care to our clients. Leonard and his team at the CBHJ will help us get there.”

Crisis Intervention Credentialing Program

With the support of a $1.65 million state appropriation to Wayne State via state legislators, the SSW has been working to develop a crisis response skill-building program for the region. The Crisis Intervention Credentialing Program is the result of a team effort, under the leadership of Kubiak and Watson, and with our colleagues at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Assistant Professor and Director of the SSW Office of Continuing Education Shantalea Johns is bringing the five-year project to life.

The mission of the program is to prepare mental health professionals and paraprofessionals to act as crisis responders in a variety of settings, often collaborating with law enforcement. This behavioral health workforce will be trained for these new jobs with a goal of increasing public safety, as well as the wellbeing of the individual in crisis.

The program will begin accepting students through a continuing education mechanism in fall 2023, and credit-based WSU classes in 2024. “The program will be open to all undergraduate and graduate students – as well as alumni of WSU and other degree programs - who are interested in behavioral health crisis intervention. They do not have to be pursuing a social work degree but will need to be seeking a degree in a social or behavioral health area,” said Johns.

“I think it’s necessary for college students looking for work in human services to be trained in crisis intervention,” said Johns. “Our graduates will be prepared to work in interdisciplinary teams of allied health and law enforcement professionals, which ultimately benefits our Detroit community.”

Program options will be available for mental health professionals in Michigan looking to build their crisis intervention skills. “These individuals will be able to complete training modules through our SSW Office of Continuing Education,” she said, noting: “I am excited that Wayne State is leading this training in Michigan.”

Some of the courses include “What is Crisis Response,” “Crisis Response and Trauma,” focused on children and another on adults, and “Documentation, Privacy, and Confidentiality.” The program encompasses a total of 12 university credit hours plus six hours in Continuing Education modules of their choosing. Various experts in crisis management will be teaching the program, which will be available for students to enroll this coming fall.

Those interested in learning more about the program should contact the SSW Continuing Education Office at to be added to a mailing list for future communications.

Hope for the future

Swanson hopes the work of the SSW and the CBHJ will contribute to a future where every Michigander will have someone to talk to in a crisis (hotlines and 988), someone to respond to crises (mobile crisis units), and a place to go (crisis stabilization units) when necessary.

“We have the ability to affect change in systems we take for granted, like 911, law enforcement, fire, and EMS. These systems can change for the better, and we can use data and technology to legitimize and spur that positive change,” said Swanson.

Authors: Laura Hipshire, Sheryl Kubiak and Betsy Vanderstelt

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