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Regents fund crisis intervention programs; after-hours hotline

AUSTIN – In a move to address the paramount need to protect students, faculty and staff from potential on-campus crises, The University of Texas System Regents on Thursday (Aug. 21) unanimously voted to allocate more than $2.5 million to fund a bystander intervention program and a suicide prevention initiative that includes a System-wide, after-hours crisis intervention hotline.

In addition to the new funding, regents adopted recommendations from the Task Force on Student Mental Health and Safety, which call for a series of initiatives aimed at better identifying worrisome student behavior and initiating appropriate responses before a problem becomes a crisis.

UT Austin’s associate vice president for student affairs, Chris Brownson, told regents that the university’s 24-hour telephone counseling line is a lifeline for students in need. He shared moving examples of instances where suicides were prevented thanks to the help and intervention provided by professional counselors experienced in crisis assessment and intervention.

“These truly are lifesaving measures,” Brownson said, explaining how in some circumstances counselors stay on the line with a caller while dispatching help if they feel the student is in danger. “Literally, suicides in progress get interrupted because of this intervention.”

Regents approved $1.1 million to fund crisis hotlines for each of UT’s academic and health institutions for the next five years. The crisis hotline for all institutions will be operated out of UT Austin. They also unanimously voted to allocate $1.4 million for the next three years for the bystander initiative – a program that helps educate the campus community on how they can help those who may be suffering from a mental health disorder.

The bystander initiative trains faculty, staff and students to recognize and mitigate hazing, substance and alcohol abuse, sexual assault, suicide and other mental health issues associated with people 18 to 25 years old, a common age of onset for some mental health disorders.

The bystander intervention initiative can be particularly useful because studies show that 75 percent of those committing suicide never sought counseling. The program serves to help overcome initial reluctance by strangers to intervene in a potentially explosive situation.

“The efforts of this board in addressing and hopefully preventing hazing and alcohol abuse, together with this initiative are going to make our campuses safer and healthier,” Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., said at the board meeting. “This subject we are talking about today is so important that I designated Dr. Brownson a chancellor’s health fellow to implement this important work that is occurring at UT Austin, System-wide.”

The recommendations adopted by regents also include establishing intervention teams at each UT System institution comprised of representatives from the offices of student affairs, student mental health, student health services and others. They are charged with drawing from a variety of sources to bring a better collective understanding of threats on campus and how to defuse them.

Following the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, campuses around the country launched behavioral intervention initiatives with the goal of proactively identifying and intervening in cases of students displaying disturbing behavior.

About The University of Texas System

Educating students, providing care for patients, conducting groundbreaking research and serving the needs of Texans and the nation for more than 130 years, The University of Texas System is one of the largest public university systems in the United States, with nine academic universities, six health institutions and a fall 2013 enrollment of more than 213,000. The UT System confers more than one-third of the state’s undergraduate degrees, educates two-thirds of the state’s health care professionals annually and accounts for almost 70 percent of all research funds awarded to public universities in Texas. The UT System has an annual operating budget of $14.6 billion (FY 2014) including $3 billion in sponsored programs funded by federal, state, local and private sources. With about 90,000 employees, the UT System is one of the largest employers in the state.