The University of Pittsburgh is unable to provide concrete data to show whether a roughly year-old partnership between mental health professionals and campus police has helped students in crisis.
The university announced the launch of the Pittsburgh Higher Education Assessment and Response Team [HEART] in January 2022, following national calls to reduce or eliminate the role of police in many mental health emergencies. The program allows mental health professionals to join campus police in responding to some students in crisis.
Pitt said the program aims to prevent trauma, specifically among students of color, and “ensure that the least restrictive and most clinically appropriate intervention is applied.” But more than a year after the program’s launch, the university has not begun a formal review of its outcomes. It was unable to provide PublicSource with data in response to several questions about the program’s effectiveness.
The mental health of college students has worsened in recent years, and future classes of students may be more vulnerable than ever before. Without tangible information on HEART’s outcomes, it’s impossible for the campus community to know whether the program is meeting its stated goals of limiting involuntary hospitalizations and traumatic encounters with police.
Ahmed Ghuman, executive director of the University Counseling Center, said in an interview that the program has been in its “implementation phase” and that a review of its outcomes will follow. He did not have a timeline for when this review would be completed.
Last year, then-university spokesperson David Seldin told PublicSource that it will develop a process for collecting and sharing data, identifying students who’ve had repeat interactions with HEART and measuring successful de-escalation and intervention. Seldin did not provide a timeline for that process.
“Stakeholders understand that it’s critical to ensure that HEART achieves its goals and course corrects when it does not. Evaluation of the program and data will provide the ability to determine if the program will need to pivot,” Seldin said at the time.
Ghuman said in the February interview that the counseling center has internally assessed the program, even though a formal review hasn’t occurred yet. The center has seen a reduction in hospitalizations, a decrease in the stigma around accessing mental health services and an improved response for students of marginalized identities, he said. The top concerns HEART has responded to are classified as suicidal ideation, “unknown reason,” depression, academic concerns and self-harm.
A more formal assessment will occur “once we have enough data and the program has existed long enough to be able to have an accurate representation,” Ghuman said. “It’s an ongoing review — growing the program, improving it, learning lessons, collaborating with our peers across the country that have similar programs.”
Pitt also said last year that it will form an advisory committee of students, faculty, staff and community partners to guide the program’s operations. That committee launched this fall and meets quarterly, with the goal of making sure that “everyone’s voice is heard,” Ghuman said.
On Jan. 19, PublicSource requested data on the outcomes of the HEART program. We asked for the number of welfare checks initiated at Pitt since the program’s implementation, and of those, the number that involved HEART. For welfare checks that involved the HEART program, we asked for:
- The number that resulted in a “successful” response, and the university’s definition of success
- The number that resulted in visits to resolve Crisis Services and/or UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital
- The number that resulted in involuntary hospitalizations
- The number that resulted in an arrest.
PublicSource requested that the university provide the data by Jan. 26. That day, university spokesperson Jared Stonesifer wrote in an email that they were told “that nobody at Pitt, from the Chancellor on down, has been given a chance to review, engage or otherwise consume data/findings from the first year of the program, and that it would be very improper of us to speak publicly about this before briefing our own folks internally.” Stonesifer had no further information Monday.
“This is a fantastic program, and most people at Pitt can’t wait to tell this story,” he added. “It really is something we want to talk about, and at length. The timing has just been put into question.”
Ghuman said the counseling center does not have data on the number of welfare checks involving HEART that resulted in hospitalizations or further interactions with law enforcement. Once the program’s review begins, “we would have more data around that,” he said.
A response under the HEART program
The HEART program is intended to respond to welfare checks, which students, faculty and staff can initiate by contacting campus police. The clinicians will respond if they’re available — the program operates between Tuesdays and Saturdays from 2 to 10 p.m. — and if it’s clear that the situation involves a mental health or safety concern.
After the HEART program was announced in January 2022, several students and mental health advocates told PublicSource that the partnership could improve the university’s response to crises. But they also recommended that Pitt incorporate student feedback and allow the clinicians to take the lead over campus police when responding to emergencies.
Ashlee Wolfgang, associate director of clinical services at Pitt and leader of the HEART program, said the program’s two clinicians are generally the predominant responders once campus police have assessed the safety of the situation. The clinicians are focused on de-escalating the crisis and providing support and coping strategies to the student in distress, she said.
The clinicians have received training in trauma-informed practices and crisis intervention techniques, and they participated in a weekslong training from Pitt Police that covered topics such as firearms, criminal law, scenarios and defensive tactics. They also participated in the university’s SAFE self-defense program. The university is exploring more opportunities for joint training, Stonesifer said.
The Pitt Police’s website states that 80% of the department is Crisis Intervention Team certified, which helps officers “recognize and react more effectively and safely with persons with a mental illness.”
Chief of Police James Loftus declined an interview. The Pitt Police provided a statement that said the department is proud of the partnership, and that the program has supported its trauma-informed response training.
Several universities across the country have launched crisis response teams and co-responder models in recent years, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Oregon State University, the University of Texas at Austin and Johns Hopkins University. Pitt meets with Johns Hopkins, UT Austin and other universities that have co-responder programs to discuss best practices and standards of care, and the university is helping create a guide for developing similar programs.
UW-Madison launched its co-responder program in October 2021. Spokesperson John Lucas said the university’s police department began a formal evaluation after the pilot year but added that University Health Services assessed the program “after every call in its pilot year and it continues to do so now. It does not wait for a certain time in the year to do this because we want responsive and accurate data.”
The university reviews the mental health concerns and racial demographics of students assisted by the program as well as their outcomes after 48 hours and beyond. UW-Madison shares its findings with the student governance body, the police and health services advisory boards and the student affairs division, among others.
About seven months after Johns Hopkins launched its Behavioral Health Crisis Support Team, the university stated that the team had responded to 44 calls and “conducted safety assessments, provided compassionate listening, validation, and de-escalation.” Further data on outcomes was not listed on the webpage, which was last updated in May 2022.
Some students lack awareness of the program
Seldin, the former university spokesperson, said last year that program members will work to increase help-seeking behavior through “ongoing education and outreach not only about HEART, but campus and community resources available to support student well-being.”
When PublicSource interviewed or contacted several students this year about the program and Pitt’s response to mental health concerns, some said they had not heard of HEART before or did not know much about the program.
“I know a lot of people aren’t aware of all the resources that are available, which is one of the things that our club tries to do,” said Anushka Konka, president of the university’s Active Minds chapter, in an interview. She learned of the program last semester when she attended a counseling center training on responding to students’ mental health concerns.
Because students can only access HEART if they call for a welfare check, the university has taken a different approach to advertising the program, Ghuman said. The university has sought to make faculty, staff and student leaders — including resident assistants — aware of the program.
Though they were not all familiar with HEART, several students said they believe the program and its co-responder model is valuable.
“One of the big issues with students in active mental health crises is a lot of people are very uncomfortable with police,” said Caroline Ronsivalle, president of Pitt’s chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “I think that students will be a little bit more open to receiving help if it comes in that form.”
Emma Folts covers higher education at PublicSource, in partnership with Open Campus. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story was fact-checked by Dakota Castro-Jarrett.