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Another kind of emergency: Handling student psychological crises

By Lisa Trowbridge, The Miami Student

It's a cold Sunday night in February when the Miami University Police Department (MUPD) gets a call from a student in Collins Hall.

This is the second time that night that MUPD has responded to a call about a student having a "psychological emergency." The second time that night they had to send a student to a hospital because of it.

"Psychological emergency" -- it's a vague term used by the police department to classify different types of incidents.

These emergencies include any mental health issues that involve "the potential for imminent self-harm, suicide or harm to others," said Kip Alishio, director of Student Counseling Services.

According to the MUPD Crime and Fire Log, there were 29 recorded incidents between August 2015 and 2016, seven of which resulted in hospitalizations. There have already been two such cases in the weeks since the fall semester began.

Alishio said that these crises can be responses to struggles such as body image or sexual assault, but are most often a product of the stressful, high-intensity college life that many Miami students live.

"The most rapidly-growing condition is anxiety," Alishio said. "The more common concern historically has been depression, but now anxiety has caught up with depression as a major concern for students."

Police Chief John McCandless agreed, noting that events like finals and holidays can serve as triggers for increased stress. Twelve of the 45 incidents last year occurred in the two weeks preceding winter break, more than any other same-length time span throughout the year.

When an incident does occur, it takes a collaborative effort between resident advisors and directors, MUPD, and Student Counseling staff to help the student and make sure they are safe.

The process of how these incidents are dealt with varies with each case, but usually follow a similar pattern: The student's friend, roommate or even the person themself notifies someone of the problem -- be it an RA, the police or a student counseling professional -- who then tries to evaluate the situation and provide help.

If the person has attempted suicide or otherwise harmed themselves, they are sent to McCullough-Hyde Hospital to be treated for their injuries. If their problem is more severe than what Miami's staff is equipped to handle, they are sent to Fort Hamilton Hospital for an in-depth evaluation.

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While some cases are handled initially by RAs and friends of the person experiencing the issue, all involve MUPD in some way.

"The police are kind of a catch-all for all kinds of problems, so I think when people call us, they're not sure why they're calling us except for the fact that someone that they care about is not acting the way that they normally see them act," McCandless said.

Sometimes, that's all there is to it -- someone is worried that their friend may be having trouble, when in reality there is no deeper psychological issue at hand. This still falls under the umbrella of psychological emergencies in police records, but, according to McCandless, the term doesn't always indicate a serious, threatening problem.

None of the MUPD officers are specifically trained to deal with psychological issues, so, in some cases, they call SCS to the scene to evaluate the situation. However, McCandless said he is confident in the ability of the police department to respond to these emergencies.

"Most all police officers, by virtue of the basic training, are prepared to, if there's an immediate problem, figure out the best way to take care of it," he said.

Anderson Hall resident director Cory Duchesneau is equally confident in his team's ability to help students through their psychological problems. RAs must go through a two-week training period before the school year starts, while RDs have a more in-depth, six-week training process that covers a multitude of problems they may face, including those associated with mental health.

While Duchesneau thinks this training is usually enough to prepare the residence hall staff for any situation they might encounter, he admits that it's not a perfect system.

"You can't solve all problems, even if you have all that training. I think we could always do more, of course, but I think we have enough training so that we usually do pretty well with it," said Duchesneau. "I think some of the most important training is the identifying piece, because sometimes you have to just notice something going on. They don't always tell you."

Students under emotional duress are encouraged to meet with SCS routinely in the weeks following a psychological emergency in order to ensure that they are improving.

Additionally, MUPD routinely conducts what they list in their Crime and Fire Log as "welfare checks," which are quick check-ins the police make with students after a concerned friend or family member suspects a problem.

McCandless said that the vast majority of these welfare checks are uneventful. Police ascertain that the student is emotionally healthy and that no action needs to be taken. However, welfare checks are still an important preventative measure taken by MUPD.

Alishio said that Miami is working actively to prevent psychological emergencies and other mental health problems from occurring so frequently. In an effort to raise awareness about how to address mental health issues, he noted, the university has has implemented over 250 programs on the subject in the past few years.

One of these is an "At-Risk" program offered as part of the first-year UNV 101 course. This online module focuses on how to identify when someone is struggling and how to approach them and refer them to SCS.

However, some members of Miami's staff recognize that there is still work to be done when it comes to helping students in need.

"People are still going to fall through the cracks." Duchesneau said. "I think it's something we can always do better on."