Laylon Williams, Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, Elijah Bazemore.

Nicole Schramm-Sapyta named Volunteer of the Year at Durham Crisis Intervention Team Awards Banquet; Data+ and Bass Connections in Brain & Society honored as Community Partner Agencies of the Year

Nicole Schramm-Sapyta of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences researches addiction. In the summer of 2016, she began working with a Duke Bass Connections Brain & Society team to learn more about the opiate epidemic in Durham. In Bass Connections teams, students and faculty address real-world problems through research, creativity, and collaboration with external partners.

Interested in the local law-enforcement perspective on drug use, they met with members of the Durham Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). CIT members are police officers and other first responders who have received extensive special training to respond to citizens in crisis, often due to underlying behavioral health issues such as addiction or mental illness. More than 950 first responders in Durham have been CIT-trained since 2007.

“A third of people in our jails have mental health issues. It’s great to have Duke and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences on board, because we need the research, we need our work to be evidence-based, because people’s lives are at stake.” –Wendy Jacobs, Durham County Board of Commissioners Chair

When Schramm-Sapyta and her students first met with the CIT officers, a one-hour meeting stretched to more than two hours of open, honest discussion. The students asked hard questions and the officers responded with experience, policy information, and honesty. The Bass Connections students were so impressed that they wanted to spread the word. They organized two CIT presentations on campus and three Mental Health First Aid training sessions, the latter completed by more than 100 members of the Duke community.

Schramm-Sapyta and students were encouraged to return and brainstorm with CIT members about ways Duke could support the program. They learned the CIT had lots of data on 9-1-1 calls but no one to analyze it and make it useful to CIT. Schramm-Sapyta connected with Paul Bendich, Associate Professor of Math and Data+ leader, and thus was born the first Data+/CIT project, “Mental Health Interventions by Durham Police.”

Data+, run by Duke’s Rhodes Information Initiative, is a 10-week summer research experience for undergraduates interested in exploring new data-driven approaches to complex challenges.

Schramm-Sapyta described the successful Data+/CIT collaboration on Dec. 7 during her keynote remarks at CIT’s 11th Annual Recognition Banquet, held at the Durham Human Services Complex. Data+ and Bass Connections in Brain & Society were named “Community Partner Agency of the Year,” and Schramm-Sapyta was honored as “Volunteer of the Year.”

CIT honorees.The annual event recognizes “Exemplary and Dedicated Work of Durham County’s CIT First Responders,” according to the program. Sponsors included National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Durham and Alliance Behavioral Healthcare. Teshéa Grant, Public Information Officer for Durham County Emergency Medical Services (EMS), served as Mistress of Ceremonies.

Team members from EMS, the Sheriff’s Department, DPD, Duke University and N.C. Central University Police departments, Durham Emergency Communications, and Durham Technical Community College also were honored.

Local officials attending included City of Durham Mayor Steve Schewel, Durham County Board of Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs, and current and former Durham County Sheriffs Clarence Birkhead and Mike Andrews. Len White, Associate Professor of Neurology and DIBS Associate Director for Education, attended as co-leader of the Bass Connections Brain & Society theme, which DIBS manages.

Officials made clear how important it is to understand the links between people with mental health issues, local law enforcement, and incarceration. “A third of people in our jails have mental health issues,” Jacobs said. “It’s great to have Duke and DIBS on board, because we need the research, we need our work to be evidence-based, because people’s lives are at stake.”

“This is a fantastic example of the potential for really deep, enduring partnerships between Duke and local institutions and law enforcement in Durham.” –Ed Balleisen, Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies

Bendich told event attendees he loves to expose students to really hard problems and to professionals who are working on the problems. “Technical excellence is important but more important is whether you’re able to explain your solutions to people on the ‘pointy end’ of these hard problems,” he said. “To do so, you have to craft a story and make it believable, compelling. Projects like this one are beautiful examples.” On a personal note, he added, “I’m a child of two mental health professionals, so this project is especially meaningful to me.”

The Data+ team’s first project was to analyze 9-1-1 calls between 2011 and 2016 and determine if there were any patterns related to CIT-tagged calls—and indeed there were! Behavioral health-related calls typically peak on Wednesdays between 8 a.m. and noon, (“Hump Day is real,” said Schramm-Sapyta), but are sparse on Sunday mornings between 4 and 8 a.m.—information CIT could then use to deploy resources.

Students also looked at various areas of the city regarding the number of CIT calls. “Not surprisingly,” Schramm-Sapyta said, “the poorest areas of our city are the greatest utilizers of CIT services.” That’s good news in that it suggests citizens are familiar with CIT and its services, and the services are going where they are most needed, she pointed out. “It also suggests the need for greater mental health services in these areas, so that crises can be averted.”

In 2017, a second Data+ project looked at whether CIT was helping reduce recidivism, i.e., how often convicted criminals are returning to jail after they have been released. Those identified as having a behavioral health issue are much more likely to return to jail, Schramm-Sapyta noted. This time, data were provided by the Durham County Sheriff’s Office and the Durham County Jail.

“Before CIT existed, recidivism was on the rise in Durham,” Schramm-Sapyta said. “As CIT was first established, and the program began to grow, recidivism leveled off.” In the most recent five years, as CIT and Durham have grown rapidly, and other mental health services at the jail and in the community have increased, recidivism has dropped sharply, she noted.

Ed Balleisen, Duke’s Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, oversees DIBS and Bass Connections. He emphasized the special nature of the Data+ and Bass Connections projects linked to the Durham community.

“This is a fantastic example of the potential for really deep, enduring partnerships between Duke and local institutions and law enforcement in the city and county of Durham,” he said. “These projects allow pursuit of significant research questions that can inform decision-making and deploy the creativity of Duke’s faculty and students in partnership with local institutions to carry out that research and present it, with an eye toward allowing decision-makers to see their world more clearly and have a better sense of what’s working and what isn’t,” Balleisen added.

Schramm-Sapyta ended her Dec. 7 remarks by thanking the Bass Connections Brain & Society Theme and the Data+ program—and especially the CIT. “I’ve learned Durham is a great place to live, and CIT is a big part of that greatness.”

Originally posted on the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences website

Photos: Laylon Williams of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Durham, Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, Elijah Bazemore of the Durham County Sheriff’s Office Detention Services Division (courtesy of Williams); CIT honorees, including representatives Len White and Paul Bendich, standing at left, and Schramm-Sapyta, seated in center