AUSTIN, Texas — In an effort to respond sensitively to mental health crises, professionally trained counselors will partner with the University of Texas Police Department to provide a combined response to mental health-related calls and emergencies.
This new partnership, the Mental Health Assistance and Response Team (MHART), will dispatch mental health professionals alongside plainclothes police officers to respond to individuals in crisis beginning this fall. Similar initiatives have been rolled out in cities across the country, but UT Austin is one of the first universities to implement a program of this kind.
“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,” said UT Austin President Jay Hartzell. “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.”
Law enforcement agencies across the country, including UTPD, are receiving a growing number of calls involving people with mental health concerns. This often puts officers in the position of making quick decisions regarding the best course of care for individuals in crisis. MHART means that such situations will now be dealt with jointly — by both a trained mental health professional and a plainclothes police officer — where decisions about care and safety will be made together.
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. Together, the counselor and officer will triage, provide a risk assessment, implement de-escalation techniques and determine whether hospitalization is needed.
MHART will begin as a one-to-two-year pilot program with two full-time mental health professionals hired to cover the most critical response hours. Phase 1 of the program’s launch will allow for one mental health professional to respond to calls with one UTPD officer.
MHART was developed by staff members at the Counseling and Mental Health Center, Employee Assistance Program, Office of the Dean of Students, UT Police Department and the Victims Advocate Network.
The input of students and staffers played a key role in the conception of MHART. Leaders from Student Government, Senate of College Councils, Graduate Student Association, Black Graduate Student Association, Police Oversight Committee, Black President’s Leadership Council, Student Services Budget Committee, African and African Diaspora Studies, Mexican American and Latina/o Studies, and the Diverse Welcoming Campus Steering Committee all contributed to the process.
“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.”