UT employees volunteer to offer ‘mental health first aid’ on campus

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A team of newly trained UT faculty and staff members is now taking turns as on-call volunteers, offering help to UT employees and visitors who have experienced something traumatic. 

UT Austin Police got grant funding this past year for what they’re calling the Victims Advocacy Network, a team of Longhorn faculty and staff who have volunteered to go through training. 

Now, when a UT Police officer goes out to a call and sees someone who is in distress, they can offer that person a VAN volunteer. If the VAN help is requested, the on-call volunteer has half an hour to meet the victim. This volunteer not only can help provide “mental health first aid” to people in need, the volunteers also are trained to help direct people to the right resources to help them move forward. 

The program has been active for two weeks. Already there are seven volunteers involved and offers help during the day. Eventually, UTPD would like to expand to a staff of around 40 people. If you are interested in applying, you can look here. 

In addition to the application and training, volunteers will go through monthly sessions to boost their skills. 

“Four and a half years ago we had an incident where a longtime faculty member died on campus and there were other colleagues of this faculty member around who saw that happened,” explained Mayra Sigala-Ramon, the Victims Advocate Network Coordinator for UTPD. She said during that incident, UTPD began talking to the Employee Assistance Program, which offers counseling for UT employees about the need for a service that fills the gap between where police support stops and counseling begins. 

Sigala-Ramon said these advocates can simply wait with the victim until they are able to move forward, or they can also answer questions about the criminal justice process and free resources they can turn to. 

“It could also lead to a decrease in the long term effects of a traumatic event, so a decrease in PTSD  and any kind of trauma symptoms that might result,” Sigala-Ramon said. 

She believes there is a need on campus to offer this extra support for UT employees.

“We just want to make sure they are supported as well as the students are,” she added. 

UT’s Counseling and Mental Health Center already dispatches post-trauma response counselors for students who’ve had stressful experiences. 

Monica Kortsha, a science writer at UT’s Jackson School of Geosciences, signed up because the idea of helping out her community members appealed to her. 

“When people think of UT they think of the students that’s why we’re here but here’s a huge community of faculty and staff as well,”  she explained. 

UT has 15,922 nonstudent employees (this includes both full time and part-time). 

Kortsha explained that as part of her VAN training, she had to do ride-alongs with both UTPD and Austin Police’s Victim Services’ team. She realized then the value of having someone who is not an officer also responding when a crime or a stressful incident occurs. 

    “And to have someone show up in plain clothes like, ‘ hey I’m here to help you,’ it made that horrible moment a little more manageable for people,” Kortsha recalled. 

  She hopes that other UT employees consider signing up to volunteer as well. “We’re coming from the same pool of people that will be helping, we’re not some outside source, we’re helping us.” 

Already, UTPD says one VAN volunteer has already been dispatched to help in the past week. This volunteer offered assistance to an employee who had their possessions stolen and was in distress. 

Austin Police department and the Travis County Sheriff’s Office have similar programs, in fact, VAN was modeled after Travis County’s volunteer-based program. 

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