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Who should respond to crisis calls on campus?

When college students have mental health crises, a call to 9-1-1 is often the only option, resulting in a visit from the police. One California State University campus, Cal State Long Beach, is changing that and will begin sending mental health professionals to respond to crisis calls. Why is this change important?

Education Beat is a weekly podcast hosted by EdSource’s Zaidee Stavely and produced by Coby McDonald.

Transcript:

Anne:

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, executive director of EdSource. Large numbers of college students are reporting increased feelings of anxiety and depression. When students have psychiatric emergencies, most often their only option is to call the police for help. One California state university campus, Cal State Long Beach, is changing that. Instead of only sending police, mental health professionals will also respond to crisis calls. It’s part of a new initiative to overhaul how the campus addresses the mental health needs of its students.

Presley:

The whole stigma around mental health is only more perpetuated when law enforcement goes to meet someone who’s going through a crisis.

Anne:

How will this new effort improve students health and wellbeing? Here is this week’s Education Beat with host Zaidee Stavely.

Zaidee:

One day in May, 2021, when Presley Dalman was a junior at Cal State Long Beach, she received a series of voice messages from her best friend.

Presley:

They texted me voice memos essentially saying goodbye. And there was one for me, there was one for their brother, and then one for their mother and father.

Zaidee:

Presley knew immediately what the messages meant.

Presley:

They had spoken often about actually like their thoughts of suicide. And so I knew that that’s where this was headed. I knew I had to do something because I knew that this is not something that they would take lightly. This is not something that they would joke about.

Zaidee:

She tried to text her friend back, but she couldn’t get the messages to go through.

Presley:

They turned off their location, they turned off their phone. Nobody could get ahold of them. So I had to get the police involved. And that was the last thing that I wanted to do.

Zaidee:

So Presley called 9-1-1.

Presley:

It was really scary to have to actually say out loud, like this is my best friend and I think that they’re going to kill themselves. And so I need you to do something right now. Like just having to say that out loud, I think makes it so much more real. And I, for hours for the whole day, really, I was just not able to rest whatsoever. Barely got any sleep that night.

Zaidee:

Presley was worried about her friend, worried that they might have actually killed themselves. But she was also worried that the police wouldn’t know how to deescalate the situation.

Presley:

Just knowing that my best friend being in the state that they were in, couldn’t be met by someone who really knew them, who really cared about them, who knew about their situation and who would be able to communicate with them compassionately. I would just be afraid that they would be hostile with my best friend or not really understand what they’re going through and just push them even further. That’s really something that I was afraid of as well.

Zaidee:

Two hours later, Presley got a call that her friend had been found with several bottles of pills in their car. And had been taken to the hospital. But she was still nervous and worried about what might have happened during her friend’s interaction with the police.

Presley:

And later on, once they were out of the hospital, they told me that the police being there only made things worse. It only made them feel more scared and more like an outcast almost. It made them feel like their mental health was a crime almost because it’s law enforcement that meets them. And that’s it just, the whole stigma around mental health is only more perpetuated when law enforcement goes to meet someone who’s going through a crisis. So those are just things that I wouldn’t want for anyone else. And those are also things that they told me that they didn’t want. But I knew that that was the only option I had left.

Zaidee:

This is Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools. This week, who should respond to mental health crisis calls on college campuses? Calling the police for help is often the only option for students who are trying to help a friend who’s threatening harm to themselves or others. Cal State Long Beach wants to change that with a new mobile crisis unit. My colleague Ashley A. Smith wrote about this for EdSource. Hi Ashley.

Ashley:

Hi Zaidee.

Zaidee:

So tell me first what is this big, new mental health plan at CSU Long Beach? What does it consist of?

Ashley:

So this mental health plan consists of like 60 different action items to basically help students improve their wellbeing. It’s to help them cope during high stress times. It’s also a way to culturally respond to issues that create, you know, stress and anxiety for students, particularly if they’re coming from first generation households or low-income backgrounds.

Zaidee:

Okay. And specifically you looked at two of the things that the plan is focused on. Tell me about instead of sending police officers, they’re gonna be sending someone else?

Ashley:

Yeah. This is really interesting. Long Beach actually believes that they are the first university in the country to do something like this. So typically if there is a psychiatric emergency with a student on campus, you have to call 9-1-1, in which case the police arrive. And if they believe that you are at risk of hurting yourself or hurting others, you essentially have to go into a hospital. But Long Beach is doing something different. They have these mobile crisis units that are going to employ mental health professionals who are going to respond with the police. Basically you have someone who is skilled in psychiatric services, someone who can really help and care for these students in a way that is different than perhaps the police would. And that is revolutionary, according to the students who really push for this.

Zaidee:

Why is it so important that it not just be police that respond to psychiatric calls?

Ashley:

I mean, police aren’t trained mental health professionals. They are trained to do what police officers do, which is great in those types of situations. But when you’re dealing with someone who is contemplating suicide, who is extremely depressed, who really is having a traumatic event, it’s important that we have people who are skilled and trained, who are professionals in handling those types of situations respond, who can show a level of care and concern for these students in this very traumatic time.

Zaidee:

Presley Dalman says it would’ve felt different for her to call a crisis line, knowing that a mental health professional would be responding to her friend.

Presley:

There would’ve been like some relief because I knew that that was someone who could speak to them really compassionately, gently, and just like deeply look and deeply listen to that person, understand what they’re going through without making them feel like they’re a burden or like not really invalidate them and just do their best to help them to remember like who they are almost.

Zaidee:

Ashley when I spoke with Presley, it just reminded me again I had a similar experience in college where a friend tried to kill herself. And it just makes me wonder how common it is to have mental health concerns or, you know, suicidal thoughts.

Ashley:

Yeah. So nationally 53% of students in 2021 reported they were worried or scared often or constantly within the past six months. Just on the Long Beach campus, they did a survey and found that 86% of their students reported moderate or high stress in the last 12 months. And then there’s other factors that can lead to anxiety and stress. 57% of Long Beach students that they witnessed online or in person, a hostile exchange, discrimination due to someone’s race or ethnicity. So students are dealing with a lot. They’re saying a lot, you know, nearly 30% of students said that they had lost a family member or a loved one or a friend due to the COVID 19 virus. So the students are dealing with a lot right now. And what’s really great is that we actually have data and numbers to show that they do need help.

Zaidee:

How did this idea get started at Long Beach State? I mean, who started it and who came up with it and why?

Ashley:

It was started by Beth Lessen the Vice President of Student Affairs on the Long Beach campus. But really this is something that students I think have been pushing for for quite some time. For greater mental health awareness. Like a lot of colleges across the country, you know, Long Beach has seen a growing awareness of mental health in the last few years, but I think we can all agree that the coronavirus pandemic just heightened everything. The effects of remote learning and working can have a negative impact on people. And there have been a growing number of surveys over the past few years that have shown the students they don’t perform well academically when they are in a high stress situation, when they are dealing with trauma. If you’re doing well mentally, then you’re doing well in other aspects of your life. And so Long Beach realized that they needed to invest in mental health resources, more than just counselors if they wanted to see better academic outcomes from their students.

Zaidee:

Is it particularly expensive?

Ashley:

Well, that is a good question. So Long Beach received a $400,000 grant from the US Department of Health and Human Services. And that’s going to employ just two mental health professionals in the mobile crisis unit. The price tag on all of the other 60 items we don’t quite know. And I don’t think Long Beach has a clear idea of just how much everything is going to cost. They are reaching out to donors, to foundations, they’re using state dollars that have been put aside for mental health initiatives on colleges and universities to help fund a lot of this.

Zaidee:

You also looked at another part of this big mental health plan, which was the text messaging. So can you explain that?

Ashley:

Yeah, so I think this is really interesting. They’re creating this peer to peer text messaging program, where they are employing and training students to just randomly text message other students to see how they’re doing now. The bulk of these texts would happen during like high stress time. So think midterms, finals, right before graduation, where a student will just randomly get a text from another student, just asking, how are you doing? How is it going? And, you know, students for the most part may respond, oh, I’m doing fine, or what’s going on? Or who is this? Or what is this about? But other students may respond differently, may explain that they’re not doing so well. And during those times the students have been trained to interact with them, to help them either deal with this high stress situation, help them find the resources on campus to help them deal with it.

Ashley:

Or if they find that this is really beyond their expertise, that the person that they are texting with really needs a higher level of help or assistance, those students know when to escalate it to an actual mental health professional. And so Long Beach ran a pilot of this program with 1,400 students this spring, and they found they had nearly a 50% response rate. Long Beach told me that it’s amazing if you get 30% of students to even open an email. But they said that nearly half of those 1,400 students responded. And of course, some of the responses were simply, you know, wow, this is a really great idea, But others were that, you know, a family member had died in, or they were really struggling to get through the semester, in which case those peer counselors were able to communicate with them and talk with them and help them get through what they were going through. And they had so much success with this, that they are expanding the program this fall. And they are hopeful that they’ll be able to deliver this peer to peer text messaging program to the rest of campus by spring 2023.

Zaidee:

Ashley, did anything really stand out to you when you were reporting this or surprise you?

Ashley:

I mean, it was surprising to hear that Long Beach, they didn’t wanna be the first, they wanted to see if there were other places that were doing something like this better that they could simply copy. And the fact is they said they couldn’t find any. And I find that surprising. A lot of these 60 initiatives seem very simple. You know, let’s create a cultural place on campus where students can take care of their mental health. That seems very simple, but we’ve seen that a lot of campuses when they receive additional dollars for mental health, they tend to pour that money into just hiring more counselors. I think that this is really a different and unique approach to using mental health dollars. And I did find it surprising that it’s not as widespread as it should be.

Zaidee:

Do you think more campuses will start following their lead?

Ashley:

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I’ve already seen comments and questions come across, you know, Twitter to Long Beach officials about how they can make this happen. And obviously the price tag is a big concern for a lot of campuses when it comes to putting dollars aside for something like mental health. But I have already seen that there’s interest even in Cal State, across the other 22 university campuses, there’s interest in in expanding this.

Zaidee:

Presley Dalman also hopes that other colleges follow the lead of Long Beach. As for her friend, she says, they’re doing a lot better.

Presley:

They did do group therapy for, I think, four weeks, maybe after the incident. And they expressed that that was very helpful. They really appreciated their therapist. And they just, the group aspect of everything. They shared with me that it was really eye opening to realize that so many other people are going through a similar thing. And just having others there to kind of support you, just hearing other people’s stories. They love to tell me that helping is healing for them. So being able to help one person actually help them feel better. And then they all get to experience that. And so the whole community aspect was really helpful for them.

Zaidee:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools, a production of EdSource. You can read Ashley’s story at edsource.org. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks to our guests, Presley Dalman and Ashley A. Smith. And to our director Anne Vasquez. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the Lumina Foundation. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week and subscribe. So you won’t miss an episode.

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