The Michigan State University Department of Police and Public Safety recently welcomed Maria Valayil as a full-time social worker in a bid to better assist in situations where mental health is a concern.
Valayil accompanies officers on welfare checks and follows up on incidents that may indicate an individual is struggling with their mental health. Her role will shift the department towards a structure in which police officers and social workers can work together to better respond to mental health emergencies.
The philosophies that MSU promotes align very well with this structure, according to Valayil.
“That’s another primary mission we have, is to be trauma-informed and recovery-focused in working with our community members during mental health crises,” Valayil said.
This is the first time that MSUDPPS has implemented a full-time social worker role. In the past, an officer fulfilled those responsibilities.
“We would like to expand the police social work team to include coverage of more hours and weekends to better serve our community,” MSUPD deputy chief Andrea Munford said in an email.
Valayil holds a Bachelor's and Master's degree from Michigan State University's School of Social Work, where she later became a field instructor. She also has experience working with domestic violence victims in Ingham County.
She will also be involved in crisis intervention team training, or CIT, which has been provided to some officers of the police department to equip them with the skills to de-escalate and recognize symptoms or behaviors that may indicate a mental illness. With Valayil’s training and expertise, these efforts are strengthened.
“It takes more than just passing on a phone number to someone who’s in distress. They often need that warm hand-off, they often need that encouragement that things can get better,” Valayil said.
In her role, Valayil will work with nearly every level of the department. At any given time, she may receive a call from a patrol officer, detective or the 9-1-1 dispatch center directly.
This addition to the department came at a time when a record size freshman class moved onto campus. The transition for students from their hometown to college life can be startling, and may result in mental health emergencies.
“For a lot of our younger people ... the first time they’re feeling symptoms of a mental health diagnosis is now,” Valayil said. "Some of them do know what's going, but maybe haven't been treated before."
By acting with compassion, Valayil and Munford hope to respond with both their skills and mental health resources, such as Counseling and Psychiatric Services, or CAPS.
“We just want people to know that they don’t have to struggle alone,” Valayil said.
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