BHECN Partner Profile – REAL Program

In a new series on our website, we’re featuring interesting groups, organizations and people making a difference in behavioral health in Nebraska.  First up, Chad Magdanz and the REAL program at the Mental Health Association of Nebraska.

Chad MagdanzName: Chad Magdanz

Title: Program Coordinator, REAL Program (Respond Empower Advocate Listen) at the Mental Health Association of Nebraska.

What does the REAL Program do?

“We’ve worked with the Lincoln Police Department for three years, and now starting in the second stage of the program, we’re also work with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Police Department as well as the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Department.  We also go into jails sometimes to meet referrals and work with probation.

“Law enforcement officers in Lincoln take a voluntary training called BTA – Behavioral Threat Assessment – training that trains them to look at mental health calls and that population in a different, more empathetic way.  The officer gets the police call and they determine if it is an appropriate referral or not.  What they will do then is send us an email referral with information on the situation, the contact information and within 24 hours one of the peers working in our program will respond.  We will try by telephone, we’re going to try by a visit, and ultimately if that doesn’t work out we will send a letter.  We’ll try to get a hold of a referred individual six or more times on the phone, we’ll make at least two visits to the place the referral is living.

“Our services are voluntary. They are free of charge.  That’s mainly the success of it – we introduce ourselves, we say where we’re from, how we got their name. We always talk about how they aren’t in trouble, this is certainly an opportunity.  An officer found that you might be in need of a hand or someone to talk to or a variety of things.  The referrals we get are everything from a breakup with a girlfriend to severe mental health problems or issues with alcohol and drugs.  What we do is refer people to appropriate services, and we help navigate that.  We’re not just saying ‘here is a business card or a brochure. Have a nice life,’ we’re also trying to develop a relationship with that person. Our first question is ‘What happened?’ and build the relationship from there.  We try to get people interested in wellness.

“Everyone who works in the REAL Program has current and past mental health things going on. We have a wide variety of ideas on how to deal with that, how to stay in wellness, how to take control when things aren’t going well. We come at this from a non-authority point of view.  Sometimes when the cop comes your way, or the counselor tells you what to do, or the nurse tells you what to do it’s an automatic power and control thing.  We try to be mindful of that.  Our services are free and voluntary, and no means no.  If a person says ‘No, I don’t want your help,’ we’re not going to hound them.  We’re going to respect that.  We meet people where they are at.”

What makes the REAL Program unique?

“We are the only program we know of in the country doing this.  Other programs have emergency or referral services and have clinical staff, but as far as completely certified peer support working directly with law enforcement, we’re the only one doing that.”

What surprised you most about the REAL Program?

“The number of officers who have bought into the program has been a surprise.  Close to 200 officers have used the program.  That type of buy-in is amazing.  Right now, we have had 720 referrals total over the last 3 years.  We receive a referral roughly daily, sometimes every-other day. But the surprise of it all has been how quick the buy-in has been and how easy the police department been to work with.

“I’ve been surprised by the incredible need for our program across departments and agencies.  We started out working with just the Lincoln Police Department, but we’ve stayed flexible taking referrals from the County Sheriff, UNL, Lincoln Public Schools, Probation, a state senator’s office.  There’s even interest in Grand Island to set up a pilot project there that works like our program.  It’s an idea based on common sense and people are responding.

“There are so many creative, intelligent people on this team, rooting for this to work and putting so much effort into it.  I am very grateful for that.”

What do you wish more people knew about the program?

“What we are doing is something that is needed.  It is helping people succeed and that is certainly a financially responsible way to do things.  It is a program that has helped create jobs [for peer support specialists].  A big part of mental health is finding purpose and moving forward.  We are not here to take anyone under our wing, we’re here to support people and help them succeed, recognizing that they are in charge of their recovery.  People do succeed.  Sometimes it takes a little bit of support, but people do move out of all kinds of situations with a little bit of support.  We’re a good group to give that support because we have a lot of lived experience. We help people move on to wellness, whatever that looks like for them.”