When people think of the FBI, they imagine what they see in films: tropes of action-packed espionage and FBI agents chasing down serial killers. Megan Gleason just completed the FBI Citizens Academy and says that some of what we see in movies isn’t that far off. “The FBI is a lot bigger than I thought. We were able to meet with specialists who gave detailed, elaborate presentations on domestic and international terrorism, the dark web, and espionage.” Perhaps not surprising since she’s a licensed social worker, Gleason was particularly intrigued by a segment that illustrated how easily people can be manipulated. “It’s a window into what the agency does. Some of the information is enough to make a person paranoid,” she laughs. What most impressed her, though, was the ethos behind the academy, highlighting the FBI’s desire to develop relationships within the community. “They are directly sharing with us that they need our help and insights. It goes against that insular image most of us have of the FBI.”
Gleason is the metro Atlanta regional manager for the Behavioral Health Link (BHL) blended mobile crisis program, a 24-hour response service that covers the vast majority of Georgia counties. Her team, made up of 70-plus employees, responds to anyone in psychiatric or developmental disability distress. “We go in to have a conversation with the person and determine the best level of care they need, diverting them from jail and the emergency room.” She says accessing any mental health crisis system is complicated and becomes particularly daunting for a person in active crisis and their family. Since its inception, BHL has partnered with emergency medical services and local and federal law enforcement on de-escalation and trauma-informed care to give first responders “a better understanding of behavioral health crises.”
Word of these partnerships spread, and soon the FBI reached out to Gleason and her colleagues. She says the 2018 Parkland shooting, where Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people and injured 17 others at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, was a turning point for the agency. Numerous friends, family, and community members had expressed concern about 19-year-old Cruz, resulting in two tips to the FBI and dozens of 911 calls. Despite the outreach, no one intervened. So when a nurse at the FBI in Atlanta reached out to Gleason—asking “What are you doing differently than what we’re doing?”—she knew the conversation could be a vital opportunity for BHL and the FBI to greatly benefit the community. Since 2018, the two groups have sustained a close partnership.
Thanks to their ongoing relationship, the FBI reaches out to Gleason and her colleagues about cases they flag. For example, a person was experiencing paranoia and contacted the agency; he told the FBI that the government was watching him through cameras, and aliens were planning to abduct him. Before Parkland, the agency wasn’t connecting people to local support or digging deeper to ensure it wasn’t missing a potential danger. “When someone called with a tip, the FBI would say, ‘Thanks for the information, but that’s not within our wheelhouse,’ or it would result in an arrest.” Since partnering with BHL, the agency has more access to behavioral health experts in Atlanta who can quickly assess the situation. In this case, Gleason was aware of the person’s history and sent a mobile crisis team to the man’s home. The team connected the man and his family to mental health and social services within the community, increasing support around the caller and his children. “We were also able to walk the FBI agent through our risk assessment and how the person, while in need of support, did not need involuntary hospitalization.”
Gleason says the idea isn’t that the FBI or any other first responders become mental health providers. A common criticism in the United States is that no matter the state, law enforcement, the emergency room, and jail are the default mental health care providers. Ron Bruno, executive director of CIT International, shared with us in December that mental health care shouldn’t come in a police car, and crisis should be treated in the “most compassionate and least intrusive manner.” Gleason agrees and says that while not mental health providers, it behooves the community for more stakeholders like law enforcement to better understand how different mental health disorders manifest and “look at the individual, not their diagnosis.”
In November, Gleason was nominated for the FBI Citizens Academy, a selective 6-8 week program that gives leaders a look inside the agency and helps strengthen its relationships within the community. Though they’ve worked together, the academy was a unique opportunity for Gleason to learn more about the agency. “The FBI Atlanta field office has never had someone in mental health participate, and I was eager to hear more about what they do and learn from their specialists.” The academy also provided information on the various departments within the agency, giving BHL knowledge and connections that allow their mobile crisis teams to tap into a more extensive network and heighten awareness about human trafficking, meth houses, domestic terrorism, and how to reach out to agents when teams identify red flags. “We’ve received crisis calls at the airports and bus and train stations where there were markers of human trafficking.” Gleason says that one of the agents gave her a card and phone number that can be shared with potential victims, with nondescript language that wouldn’t tip off traffickers. The number goes directly to a safe house.
Mobile crisis teams work not just in downtown Atlanta, Gleason notes, but also in surrounding suburban and rural areas. On occasion, teams have been dispatched out to meth houses. “It’s important for us to know what to look for so that we don’t go in.” She points out that these are red flags mental health professionals wouldn’t typically know and that the FBI can teach them. Simultaneously, mobile crisis teams can navigate deeper into the community than probably any other service provider, which means they might see criminal activity long before anyone else, making it crucial for teams to know how to identify potential victims. “As an essential service, we interact with people daily. We also know the dismissiveness and criminalization that people in crisis face and have a knowledge base that can help agencies sort through the tips they receive.”
In addition to terrorism and espionage, the academy classes focused on hate crimes, which are not unfamiliar to Gleason. In fact, she worked on a case with the FBI, where a person was experiencing delusions and believed he was “the chosen one.” “He began to visit places of worship and make threats.” Instead of arresting the person, the FBI asked Gleason and her team to speak with the man and his family. “People often don’t realize that it’s not just the person experiencing a crisis that needs support, but their family too.” Gleason says the agents and those teaching the FBI Citizens Academy emphasize that “people who don’t need to be in jail, don’t need to be in jail,” but that also means accurately identifying the level of risk. “The FBI wants to work with the community to understand what’s happening and connect people who are struggling with the support they need.” In this case, it was also an opportunity for the FBI agents on scene to identify risk factors associated with the person’s behaviors and symptoms and observe how the crisis team could mitigate the risk. “These partnerships help the FBI and the behavioral health field better serve the community together.”