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Crime & Justice

UT Austin Police To Partner With Trained Counselors To Respond To Mental Health Crises

The University of Texas Tower.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
The University of Texas Tower is seen on the first day of classes on Aug. 25.

The University of Texas Police Department will partner with mental health professionals this fall in an effort to reduce repeat encounters with people in crisis, improve support services and emphasize de-escalation, the university announced Tuesday.

When the campus police get a mental health call, a trained counselor will be dispatched alongside a plainclothes police officer to respond.

Cities in the U.S. have started similar programs. Earlier this year, the City of Austin began including mental health services as an option for 911 callers.

UT officials said the university is one of the first to implement a program like this. The new partnership is called the Mental Health Assistance and Response Team, or MHART.

“The creation of MHART is about our desire to support our community, enhance de-escalation practices, and provide the best care to those in crisis,” UT Austin President Jay Hartzell said in a press release.“How we respond to mental health crises in society is a complex issue that intersects with many others. But just as issues intersect, so do solutions. I look forward to seeing the results of this innovative program.”

Like many law enforcement agencies, UTPD has been receiving an increasing number of calls involving people with mental health concerns, university officials said. Through the new program, decisions about care and safety will be made jointly by trained mental health professionals and a plainclothes police officer. They will use de-escalation techniques and determine if hospitalization is necessary.

“By introducing trained counselors as first responders, the university hopes to reduce both involuntary hospitalizations and repeat encounters with law enforcement as well as increase the likelihood of diverting individuals from the criminal justice system to crisis and mental health services,” UT said.

University officials said MHART will start off as a pilot program that will last one to two years, Two full-time mental health professionals will be hired. During the first phase of the program, one mental health professional will respond to calls with one UTPD officer.

“MHART will enable the university to take an approach to mental health emergencies that can reduce the overall sense of distress that people in crisis experience,” Hartzell said. “And I believe it will build an even stronger sense of trust as students, staff, faculty, UTPD and mental health professionals work together for the safety and wellbeing of our community.”

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