Penn announced the pilot of a co-responder program designed to improve mental health response on campus.
As a partnership between the Division of Public Safety, the Office of the Associate Vice Provost for University Life, and Wellness at Penn, the pilot program will feature a mental health clinician accompanying a Penn Police officer in the event of mental health crises during some overnight periods. Prior to the launch of the pilot, mental health counselors conducted a virtual assessment during these crises.
“Right now, a student [would be put] on the phone with a counselor, and the officer would do an on-site assessment in conjunction with the mental health counselor on the phone,” Vice President for the Division of Public Safety Kathleen Shields Anderson said. “And then, together, they talk about what the best next steps and referrals are for that student in that moment of crisis.”
Currently, outside of business hours, mental health professionals are only available over the phone. Associate Vice Provost for University Life Sharon Smith said that it was important to improve the quality of care at all hours, not just during the day.
“We have an ongoing community of care,” Smith said. “And we want to view that community of care through the lens of what goes on at 2 a.m., and what goes on at 2 p.m.”
Chief Wellness Officer Benoit Dubé said that there is a difference between a clinician attending in person rather than over the phone, as has been done historically.
“If you’re having a bad day, talking to someone over the phone versus going out to coffee with someone is very different,” Dubé said. “It’s a lot easier for the conversation to evolve faster in person than over the phone because you communicate both verbally and nonverbally.”
Shields Anderson added that it is beneficial for the clinician themselves to examine cues that are not apparent virtually, enabling them to make a faster and more accurate judgment.
“For someone experiencing a true crisis, it’s helpful for our officers to be in the room and see not just what is being said, but also how the person appears, and what is the state of their house, and their room,” Shields Anderson said. “There are other kinds of contextual clues that you can gather about where the person is mentally from being present.”
The City of Philadelphia launched its co-responder pilot program in the spring of 2021 known as the Crisis Intervention Response Team Program, in which a police officer and mental health professional responded to calls together.
Dubé said that the program, which was introduced at the Board of Trustees meeting in early March, is being piloted with the goal of improving student health and quality of life, similar to previous programs led by DPS and Wellness at Penn.
“The reason why we are piloting this program is in line with what we have done in the past — working on the betterment of our students,” Dubé said.
Dubé, Smith, and Shields Anderson said that the idea for the pilot was independently discussed by the three teams prior to last summer, and the groups came together to coordinate the pilot at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.
“Our approach to policing has changed our approach to mental health, our responsiveness to mental health, [and] the stigma surrounding seeking help, all from a societal perspective,” Dubé said. “So we’re seizing that moment because there’s a window for us to innovate and do better.”
Shields Anderson and Dubé said that Penn will hire a flexible amount of mental health professionals to staff the pilot. They said that the hiring process should conclude within the next several weeks, followed by training to familiarize the hirees with the culture at Penn and the expectations of their positions.
A now-expired online job listing stated that the hired workers “will work in concert with other emergency response resources to respond to calls for service, conduct socio-clinical assessments, and make appropriate referrals and handoffs to emergency medical care and/or other University and community support services.”
The leaders of the pilot expressed hope that students will see the pilot as a way Penn continues to look out for their best interests.
“We want [students] to recognize that we have their best interests at heart,” Smith said. “We all have an idea of how we want to support our students, and so students across the board, as diverse as they are, will get something of a similar experience.”