UC Santa Cruz’s new mobile crisis response team first of its kind in UC system

The new UCSC Campus Mobile Crisis Team
The new UCSC Campus Mobile Crisis Team includes Intervention Specialist Jill Heron, supervisor James Russell and Intervention Specialist Chasity Murphy.
(Via UC Santa Cruz)

Aiming to have trained mental health professionals, rather than police officers, respond to mental health crises, the Campus Mobile Crisis Team is now responding to calls four days a week on the UCSC campus and is ramping up to seven days a week. You can reach the service by calling 831-502-9988.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

With UC Santa Cruz’s launch of a mobile crisis response team this fall, the school became the first campus in the University of California system to establish an alternative to having police officers respond to mental health crisis calls.

James Russell, supervisor for the Campus Mobile Crisis Team, said that between Oct. 10 and March 2, he and two other staff members responded to about 50 calls. Of those calls, law enforcement officers accompanied them eight times, but they were ultimately needed only four times.

Prior to the mobile team, a law enforcement officer would have responded to the caller. While law enforcement officers have been trained in crisis intervention techniques, Russell said, they aren’t mental health professionals and typically aren’t as connected to or knowledgeable in the wide range of mental health resources.

“It’s been a really good transition — when our team is on duty, which is only four days a week right now. We are answering the same number of calls for mental health-related crises that were coming in to law enforcement before [we started],” said Russell. “So, we’re diverting those calls, and we expect more calls down the road as it gets publicized a little bit more.”

The program operates out of the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services department, and was established in response to growing calls to have trained mental health professionals, as opposed to police officers, respond to mental health crises. The staff serves the UCSC campus community, including students, staff and faculty, free of charge.

Russell said the program has received requests from a variety of callers including from students concerned about their peers, from individuals seeking services for themselves and from concerned family members.

Because the team hasn’t publicized the program yet while it’s still in soft-launch phase, calls primarily come through campus dispatchers diverting requests from police to the program when it is apparent the call is mental health-related. This week, however, the university will start publicizing and raising awareness about the service and its phone number: 831-502-9988.

Previously a mental health liaison and program manager at the County of Santa Cruz for eight years, Russell also spent more than a decade working as a case manager and supervisor for parolees reentering their communities after serving prison sentences. UCSC hired him in July to launch its crisis response program. He said he jumped at the opportunity to have more face-to-face contact with community members and fewer management responsibilities. Russell also responds to calls.

“One of the other things that drew me up here is that it’s a really unique age group, and a very unique time of life — people are up here for a reason,” he said of being on campus. “They want an education, and they want to move on to that next phase of their life. We’re trying to help them and bring those stressors down so they can continue to engage in that educational process.”

Russell said having a UCSC response team ensures that individuals in crisis are better linked to the unique mental health services offered on the campus.

James Russell, Jill Heron and Chasity Murphy stand next to a van the team will use to respond to calls on the UCSC campus.
James Russell, Jill Heron and Chasity Murphy stand next to a new van the mobile crisis team will use to respond to calls on the UCSC campus.
(Via UC Santa Cruz)

When the mobile crisis team responds to a call, Russell said he and his colleagues focus on understanding the immediate needs of the person in crisis.

“We’ll just sit there in silence if that’s what it takes to get them where they feel more able to deal with the reality about them,” he said. “Sometimes that’s just it — sitting in that little hole with the individual for a little while.”

After that point, the team will do an assessment to understand the risk of harm, for example, if the person in crisis is a danger to themself or others. That could include transporting the individual to the Santa Cruz County Crisis Stabilization Program, to an emergency room or just to their home. Russell said the team also informs the person in crisis about their options for continued support from the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services department.

The Crisis Stabilization Program is run by Alameda-based Telecare Corporation and is located at 2250 Soquel Ave. in Santa Cruz. It offers a wide range of mental health programs from involuntary and voluntary inpatient services.

“But yes, we’re going in, we’re assessing or deescalating and building rapport,” Russell said. “We’re trying to find options that will keep them from escalating, and get them moving towards their life goals.”

Russell is in the midst of hiring at least three additional full-time staff, which will allow the program to operate seven days a week. Currently, it’s open Wednesday through Saturday from 2 p.m. to midnight. In addition to Russell, the team includes two intervention specialists, and will soon include two emergency medical technicians (EMTs).

By adding EMTs, Russell said the team will be able to operate seven days a week. He also hopes to hire another full-time intervention specialist and several additional part-time, on-call specialists to ensure staffing when a team member is sick.

Russell said he will always encourage two staff members to respond to calls when possible. He has responded to a call alone when multiple calls came in at the same time, but he said the program has a “team approach versus a one-on-one therapy session.”

UCSC mental health and crisis resources 

Mobile Crisis Response Team phone number: 831-502-9988

Hours of operation: Wednesday to Saturday between 2 p.m. and midnight.

How it works: Regardless of the day and the hour, if someone on campus is going through a crisis, they can call and receive help. If a 911 call comes in during the mobile crisis team’s off-hours, a police officer will respond.

In addition, people should call UCSC Counseling and Psychological Services at 831-459-2628 and select option “3” for crisis assistance during weekends, holidays and after business hours. A counselor will provide immediate support and offer options for follow-up care.

When the mobile crisis team responds, it will assess with the person in crisis regarding what service, if any, is a good next step for care. Depending on the case, someone might need an emergency room, a ride home or to be sent to the Crisis Stabilization Program on a 5150 application.

To get in touch with the team, you can either call 831-502-9988 directly or call 911 to reach campus dispatch. Campus dispatch will then contact the response team, which can meet the caller within 10 to 20 minutes.

For a list of more resources, click here.

Once UCSC’s program is fully staffed with 7.5 employees, the annual costs will be $700,000 and will be financed by the university’s general fund. The program was initially launched with a one-time $292,500 Behavioral Health Justice Intervention Services grant from the state. The grant covered startup costs such as vans, radio, computers, cellphones and uniforms as well as planning and implementation.

Other UC campuses have started, or are starting, their own programs to improve how they respond to mental health calls. Each campus is taking its own unique approach.

For instance, UCSC’s program is separate from the university’s police department, but they can work together to respond to calls.

UC Berkeley is building a program, scheduled to launch this summer, that is similar to UCSC’s in that it will be separate from its police department At UC Santa Barbara, the campus police department is the agency that receives calls and responds to mental health crises alongside the county’s mobile mental health assessment team.

Russell said having a UCSC-specific team respond to the campus calls is ideal because the campus is in many ways its own community.

“It literally is that saying — we have a ‘city on a hill’ — there are 20,000-plus folks up here and you’re talking about a very unique time of life, where the folks are leaving home for the most part for the first time and they’re experimenting with ideas of ‘who am I,’” he said. “So when someone does go into crisis, I think that a UC response team is really warranted.”


Be the first to know all the big, breaking news in Santa Cruz. Sign up to get Lookout alerts sent straight to your phone here or below.