How UT Austin is reimagining mental health resources, crisis response

Education
Students walk past the tower at the University of Texas at Austin campus on February 4, 2020. Some in-person classes resumed on campus this week after a pause at the start of the semester due to a surge in COVID-19 cases locally. (KXAN Photo/Alyssa Goard)

UT Austin announced this week the launch of its Mental Health Assistance and Response Team. The two-year pilot program partners licensed counselors with trained police officers on ways to respond to mental health emergencies and provide immediate counseling to those experiencing a crisis.(KXAN File Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In 2019, the University of Texas Police Department received 500 calls for mental health crises happening in and around campus. Now, the university is unveiling a new mental health crisis response program to help mental health emergencies and provide support for students, faculty and staff in need.

UT Austin announced this week the launch of its Mental Health Assistance and Response Team. The two-year pilot program partners licensed counselors with trained police officers on ways to respond to mental health emergencies and provide immediate counseling to those experiencing a crisis.

The program has been in the works for years, but the timing of it could not be more significant, said Marla Craig, senior associate director for clinical services at the UT Austin Counseling and Mental Health Center. With some students returning to campus for the first time since March 2020, the pandemic has revealed heightened levels of stress, anxiety, depression and isolation.

“I think it’s more more important than ever that we’re having the support, the resources in place to serve our UT community members to be available to provide information, provide access to services, to the extent that can get people connected to that next step,” Craig said.

Prior to the pilot’s launch, Craig said UTPD officers have received some training in mental health response and de-escalation tactics. However, she said combining their work with trained counselors helps remove any threat or concern on the caller’s behalf, instead prioritizing intervention and support efforts.

As part of the pilot, officers will respond in plainclothes and unmarked cars to lower any perceived threat on the caller’s behalf. Counselors will introduce themselves and talk through the crisis at hand.

“We’re just kind of approaching a situation introducing as a counselor, and just kind of wanting to talk about what may be going on and providing that support and kind of calming space, I think can really de-escalate a situation, rather than maybe approaching it wearing a law enforcement uniform that might be more threatening if the person is not really sure what you know, is going to be encountered,” she said.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics reported heightened levels of anxiety and depression symptoms in adults ages 18-29 between August 2020 and August 2021. As of mid-August, more than 39% of adults reported frequent anxiety symptoms, with about 33% noting frequent depression symptoms.

Comparatively, in 2019, a similar survey compiled by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics found under 10% of adults over 18 reported frequent anxiety and depression levels.

From a national level, Texas ranks 11th for its frequency of adults over 18 reporting high levels of anxiety and depression symptoms.

One result of the pandemic has been an increased public awareness of mental health struggles, said Dr. Rebecca Farrell, program coordinator for NAMI Central Texas. With that heightened awareness can come a reduction in stigmatization surrounding mental health diagnoses.

However, she said this fall will be a transitional period for many students as they return to campus — some for the first time in 18 months.

"We are going to see more anxiety, more depression, more stress, oftentimes, related to the uncertainty. So the question becomes 'what is the new normal,' right?" she said. "People always think about, 'when are we going to go back to normal?' I don't know if we're ever going to go back to normal, but we are creating a new normal."

For students struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions, Craig said she hopes this program can provide an extra layer of protection in getting students, faculty and staff the care they need, one call at a time.

"A lot of us have felt very lonely and very alone during this time," she said. "So to know that somebody cares about you, and that we're going to be going out of our way to make sure that you are getting what you need — or to have someone to talk to about a lot of the things that maybe we experienced over the past year and a half — I think will be significant."

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