It can happen at any time. A local police agency – Binghamton, Endicott, Johnson City or Vestal – receives a call about a person experiencing a mental health crisis. But their staff are overwhelmed with other calls or too far away to answer in time.
Instead, State University of New York Binghamton (UPD) police are contacted to respond, whether the person is a Binghamton University student or not. If officers are available, they respond immediately under a long-term mutual aid agreement UPD has with other agencies.
The unique aspect of the response is that it is a collaboration with the Mental Health Association of the Southern Tier (MHAST) Mobile Crisis Unit (MCU), which was originally established in 2015 with funding from the nonprofit Care Compass Network and the Broome County Mental Health Department and includes licensed social work clinicians who respond with the police.
“It was a new concept back then,” said Angela Lynch, MHAST’s director of crisis services. “We were the first in New York State and the foundation of many other mobile crisis units that came after us. We have done what we can to help other agencies develop their own units.
“Not all MCUs work the same. We use the collaborative model with the police,” she said. “And what makes this model special is that we go to the individual and meet them where they are as we try to de-escalate and stabilize them. At the end of the day, the goal is to avoid hospitalization unless absolutely necessary. The MCU aims to fill the gaps and this takes pressure off the system, keeps people out of hospital or prison and gives them support where they are.’
Ryan Gennarelli is one of the UPD officers who respond to Mobile Crisis Aid calls. He has completed Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) provided by the Mental Health Association of the South (MHAST) and is also a member of the Campus Mental Health First Aid Training Team, which certifies others as first responders in mental health crises.
“At first I didn’t think it was my canvas,” Gennarelli said. “But then I went through the CIT training and thought, ‘This is amazing!'”
He also went to police instructor school with the intention of taking the CIT and repurposing it for the UPD in an informal way. The results were great, he said. “Whenever I see mental health training, I sign up for it.”
CIT training helps participants recognize whether a person in crisis should go to the hospital or if there is a better solution. “I once got a call on campus about a student in quarantine housing who wanted to jump out of his window,” Gennarelli said. “I just started talking to him and learned that his biggest problem was that he didn’t pay attention when he was told how to order food, so he was medically stressed, situational stressed, and he didn’t have food. I said “Buddy, I’ll get you a pizza if you need it” and called Res Life and arranged it and his whole demeanor changed.
“It wasn’t a situation where it needed to be complicated,” he added. “We have the time and the training to do that.”
All staff receive extensive training in mental health, starting with a unit at the academy called Training for Emotionally Disturbed People. There is also an officer health unit on how to deal with their own trauma and support their own wellbeing.
At the department level, UPD officers also complete three weeks of reality-based police survival training, which includes mental health incidents and on-the-job training for situations such as responding to a lunchroom perhaps when a student is disruptive.
Five officers also recently attended MHAST CIT training, Gennarelli said.
“The CIT training is a higher level of training where they do more role play and learn more about what they might encounter,” said Broome County Mental Health Commissioner Nancy Williams. “Sometimes the mobile crisis unit can’t get there as quickly as needed, so the hope is that these trained law enforcement officers can de-escalate the situation so there’s no need for a mobile crisis call.”
MHAST also provides follow-up support after responding to individuals in crisis, Williams said. “They send certified partners with the clinician who can provide another level of support and follow up after the crisis call to make sure the person is connected to services.”
The university can also ask the mobile crisis team to respond when indicated for students on campus experiencing mental health crises, and that’s a win-win for everyone, said Johan Fiore-Conte, associate vice president for student affairs and chief health officer and wellness.
“Ramona Mazzeo [the University’s psychiatrist] and I met with MHAST to get an idea of what we can do to help them better care for our students outside of college, especially with the Mobile Crisis Unit,” Fiore-Conte said. “The only thing they asked was for our police to accompany them on calls when they have advance notice that the person is a student.”
Fiore-Conte meets with people and reads a lot of reports about situations on campus, she said, “and our police are very good with our students. If there is a gap, it’s off-campus, so this focus is on how to strengthen the response for our students who live off-campus.”
Mazzeo also attended one of the regular meetings the police chiefs attend to help educate other top officers in the area about the campus resources available to students.
All of this, as well as the collaboration with MHAST, is aimed at helping people in crisis, Gennarelli explained, using one call he answered as an example.
“One of the advantages we have is our lower call volume, so if I have to spend 45 minutes on a stairwell talking to a kid in crisis mode, I have time,” Gennarelli said. “I don’t know what happens in other agencies, but the most time I’ve ever spent talking to a student was over two hours.
“I didn’t have the strength to say ‘you’re going to the hospital,’ even though the student obviously had to go,” he said. “I even had a social worker from Broome County respond, but we couldn’t get the student to go. Without harassing her, we eventually got her to cooperate and that allowed us to get her to the hospital and she started getting the help she needed.”
Gennarelli said access to staff like the licensed social worker he worked with was a big benefit that came from the MCU relationship.
In addition to responding to mutual aid calls, UPD is an integral part of the support provided to students experiencing mental health crises on campus by meeting weekly with the CARE team, Res Life, Title IX and other offices to reviewed what was happening to individual students to ensure that none of them fell through the cracks.
“And I will always remember Mady Bay [retired UPD deputy chief] in the campus safety sessions for parents held during orientation,” added Fiore-Conte. “She would say that the one thing we need to understand about UPD is ‘yes, we’re going to do what we need to do, but under an educational umbrella and with a developmental approach.'” She would add that young people make mistakes, they’re learning and dealing with a lot of life changes, so it’s a supportive and educational moment, not a punitive one.”
With the need for mental health support growing exponentially in Broome County, as elsewhere in the country, the MCU collaboration has become a critical part of the services available to the community and students of Binghamton University. “The acuity levels of the people we’re seeing are also exponentially higher than in recent years,” Lynch said. “It takes a unique type of person to do crisis work and our people are incredibly calm, good under pressure and have the skills to work with people in crisis and literally talk them out of it.”