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Mental health calls to UW-Madison Police now bring cops and counselors to some scenes

Wisconsin State Journal - 11/30/2021

Nov. 30—UW-Madison Police and University Health Services counselors have answered four mental health calls together through a co-responder model that launched last month.

Officials say it's too early to assess the effectiveness of the pilot program, which was initially available twice a week, expanded this month to three days per week, and is expected to run through the end of the school year.

Sarah Nolan, mental health director for UW-Madison, said the co-responder model has helped connect students who historically have been less likely to access University Health Services to counseling and treatment. The initiative "lays a groundwork across the university community" to support mental health services, she said.

"It's been really clear in our interactions that students who have been co-responded to have had positive experiences despite being in a crisis at that moment," she said.

Nationally, police officers' handling of mental health calls has long drawn complaints and lawsuits, with critics saying a police presence often makes the situation worse. Those in favor of reimagining public safety argue that directing lower-risk emergency calls to clinicians frees up police resources and better serves individuals in need of specialized care.

The university's co-responder model sends clinicians trained in crisis response to the scene with UW-Madison Police. The counselors' roles may also sometimes include driving students to the hospital in a van as opposed to police transport by squad car.

UW-Madison Police Chief Kristen Roman said she has wanted to start a co-responder program for several years, but it wasn't something the department could initiate on its own.

"From our perspective, these are otherwise situations that we would be fielding ourselves and making those referrals," she said. "We always hope that follow-through occurs after we have contact. But in this way, not only do we feel that we have this support (from University Health Services) in the moment, but we can walk away knowing that connection has happened."

The university's student council and the Black, Indigenous, People of Color Coalition — two student groups that have been among the most critical of university police — consulted on the program. The student advisory board for UW-Madison's Mental Health Services unit also provided feedback.

From Oct. 4, when the pilot launched, through mid-November, 34 mental health-related calls came into the university police dispatch center. Of those, 13 were for students who qualified for the co-responder program, UW-Madison Police spokesperson Marc Lovicott said. Four of the 13 calls occurred within the eight-hour window of time on certain weekdays when mental health counselors are available to assist.

University Health Services hopes to expand the pilot program to five days per week, Nolan said, though many staff are occupied with work related to COVID-19 response. The office is in the process of hiring several more employees who will be solely dedicated to the co-responder work.

The UW-Madison model is somewhat similar to an emergency response program that the city of Madison is piloting. The Community Alternative Response for Emergency Services program, or CARES, dispatches a paramedic and mental health crisis worker to certain cases in an effort to divert typically nonviolent calls away from police. In the first five weeks since the Sept. 1 launch, that program handled about three calls per day.

Need help?

If you are a student having a mental health crisis or have concerns about a student, call 608-265-5600, option 9.

To access Mental Health Services at UHS, call 608-265-5600 or log into or on the MyUHS app to schedule an appointment.


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