Campus police typically serve as first responders to student mental health crises, especially after normal business hours. But given rising student mental health challenges and service call requests—along with concerns about police unintentionally escalating crisis situations—many campus leaders are rethinking their historic response strategy.
Specifically, some institutions are adopting a differentiated response model in which trained mental health professionals—like counselors or social workers—respond to mental health crises alongside or instead of police. This ensures students receive immediate support from responders with specialized skills while also reducing the demand on campus police to handle these difficult situations independently.
Below, we’ve outlined three differentiated response models for mental health service calls, along with their respective benefits and challenges.
1. Tap campus units with mental health expertise for service call support
Some campus safety leaders are partnering with experts across campus—like those in counseling centers—for assistance during mental health calls. This approach leverages existing employees’ expertise and simplifies follow-up care coordination, since on-campus mental health providers are directly involved during initial crisis interactions.
But most on-campus counseling centers only operate during normal business hours, and asking staff who are already operating at full capacity to work in the evenings can lead to burnout. The University of Colorado Boulder’s police officers have therefore started using iPads to instantly connect students in crisis with after-hours counseling services. During the evening hours with a high mental health call volume, an on-call clinician from the counseling center provides officers with remote support, which reduces some of the logistical challenges and safety risks associated with responding to incidents in-person. Officers at the scene set up the video call, but give the student control of the iPad and adequate space to speak privately with the clinician. Campus police also defer to the on-call clinician for determining the appropriate next steps (e.g., hospitalization, in-person counseling appointment during regular business hours).
2. Develop new, in-house crisis response positions or groups
Other institutions are going a step further by creating dedicated roles or teams—typically in counseling centers or campus police departments—to respond to mental health crises. Investing in formal staff positions signals that mental health crisis support is a top institutional priority and reduces the burden on other employees to support mental health service calls. It also ensures students have 24/7 access to trained specialists who can provide immediate care and coordinate follow-up treatment with other on-campus providers.
The University of Utah’s Chief Safety Officer recently created a community services division within the department of public safety. The division employs three dedicated crisis support specialists who provide around-the-clock assistance on service calls that involve mental health or otherwise require the skills of trained counselors. Moving forward, Utah plans to deploy these specialists alongside campus police officers for all mental health crises.
3. Contract with external mental health crisis service providers
Instead of creating specialized response roles or teams internally, some institutions are contracting with external providers who send in-person responders to de-escalate crises and transport students to local hospitals (if needed). This approach frees up existing campus police and counseling capacity while also enabling institutions to outsource some physical safety risks and legal liabilities associated with responding to potentially volatile situations.
However, leaders must carefully coordinate with vendors to ensure high-quality service, follow-up care for students receiving off-campus treatment, and federal compliance with any Title IX or Clery Act reporting requirements. At Arizona State University, campus leaders have contracted with a local nonprofit, EMPACT, for emergency mental health crisis response after normal business hours. To streamline coordination, they created an internal case management system that tracks when a student receives support through EMPACT and alerts campus health providers about their treatment and any needed follow-up actions.
Applying differentiated response principles to other service calls
While most institutions have prioritized building differentiated response capabilities for mental health crises, a handful are also starting to deploy non-police staff with specialized skills as responders for other types of service calls.
For example, Chapman University’s Public Safety Department contacts the Dean of Students upon receiving a student activism service call request so student affairs staff can respond without involving police. Salve Regina University directs routine wellness check requests to residence life staff, looping in campus safety only as needed. And the University of Hartford deploys Resident Facility Assistants for after-hours building issues rather than calling on campus police.
Explore the related study on meeting demand for mental health support
Learn how to make the most of current campus and community resources and better align resources with students’ varying levels of need and risk.