DECEMBER 23, 2021 — As the UTSA Police Department prepared for the fall 2021 semester, they anticipated a rise in mental health calls from students, employees and campus visitors. Many factors contributed to this projected increase, including the return to on-campus instruction, ongoing pandemic, quarantine and isolation requirements, and reported increases nationally in anxiety and depression among college students.
As the fall semester now comes to a close, numbers show that this prediction rang true. UTSA PD saw a significant increase in welfare checks due to mental health concerns and the university’s Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT) received the highest number of referrals and cases since its inception in 2008.
As Captain Thomas Calucci thought ahead to the fall semester, he had an idea to help support officers. Calucci is a long-standing member of the UTSA Police Department, a founding member of the university’s BIT team, and a few classes away from finishing his Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling as a graduate student at UTSA.
Last summer, Calucci reached out to Thelma Duffey, chair of the UTSA Department of Counseling, to inquire about developing a collaborative training program with counseling faculty to provide crisis training for UTSA PD officers. The response was significant, with both Duffey and five additional professors volunteering to provide training for officers.
“All UTSA PD officers already receive mental health training, but this was an opportunity for advanced training in how to respond to community members in crisis. Our goal was to increase officer competence and confidence with training that they could deploy immediately to assist our community,” said Calucci.
Throughout the fall semester, officers met weekly with counseling faculty Thelma Duffey, Gerald Juhnke, Priscilla Prasath, Heather Trepal, Christopher Leeth, and Stacy Speedlin Gonzalez to learn practical tips for supporting individuals in crisis. Although many calls received by UTSA PD are for individuals experiencing mental health crisis, the university setting also sees students experiencing anxiety over tests or grades, bad breakups or other deteriorating relationships.
“Our jobs are 24/7, and after 5 p.m., we are going to be the ones responding to any calls about individuals in crisis,” said Calucci.
Nearly a dozen officers participated in the weekly trainings, with additional team members viewing recordings of the sessions. Combined, the officers received over 15 hours of instruction, with some officers reporting they would attend the training at 3 p.m. then put the skills into use later that day on an evening shift. Informally called the Mental Health Response Team, officers participating in the training were encouraged to expand their voice, empathy and communication skills as equally important tools required for responding to student concerns.
Looking forward, UTSA PD plans to continue the advanced crisis training for officers, including adding scenario and role-playing training exercises and expanding partnerships to include faculty from the UTSA Psychology Department, members of which already serve on the BIT. The police department is also exploring ways to create meaningful reflection and assessment of the program.
The creation of the Mental Health Response Team is just one of many programs that UTSA PD is engaging in to positively change the culture of policing on campus and build community relationships. Since the start of the fall semester, nearly a dozen officers, dispatchers and public safety officers have attended the 40-hour Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) Mental Health Officer training that certifies them as Mental Health Officers through the State of Texas.
Interim Chief of Police Stephanie Schoenborn said, “UTSA PD plans to include all personnel in this training that might have contact with our community. We will expand our reach in the community by sending all uniformed personnel through this training as it becomes available and schedules allow.”
In March, UTSA will offer the RITE Training Academy for officers and leadership, focused on racial equity and emotional and social intelligence skill-building.
Nationally, colleges and universities are responding to an increased need for mental health services for students. Complimenting the efforts of UTSA PD, the university has expanded UTSA Wellbeing services for students, including partnerships with Wellness 360 and MySSP to provide students with access to quality health and mental health care. These efforts align with UTSA’s commitment to enriching campus wellbeing as the institution works to become a model for student success.
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