Oregon State University Reimagines Crisis Responses on Campus

A new, trauma-informed response team, called OSU Assist, will be dispatched to assist students experiencing nonviolent mental health or substance use crises.
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  • This article makes reference to suicide, mental health crisis, and sexual assault.
  • Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis is the latest of many universities rethinking what crisis response could look like on their campuses.
  • After a September launch, OSU Assist is set to continue expanding after initial success.
  • OSU students experiencing a crisis can be connected to wraparound support from a number of services provided by the school.

Oregon State University (OSU) is the latest institution to reimagine the role of first responders in their community.

Last September, the Corvallis, Ore., university launched OSU Assist, a trauma-informed and culturally competent support team that provides services for students experiencing nonviolent mental health or substance use crises.

After a successful first semester, the program is looking to expand and improve in 2023, Josh Ford, crisis response coordinator for OSU Assist, told BestColleges.

"I think as conversations around mental health become more normalized and we are seeing how individual populations of students require certain types of interventions, programs like this are providing the right resource at the right time," said Ford.

Alternative emergency response services for mental health, substance use and other public health emergencies have taken root on college campuses nationwide in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Summer 2020 protests for racial justice.

College students across the country are continuing to advocate for reforms on their campuses, where mental health crises and police distrust are rampant. Since then, institutions such as the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan have rolled out innovative programs to provide students in crisis with the best care possible.

In Corvallis, where OSU serves nearly 25,000 students on a 420-acre campus located a few blocks from downtown, OSU Assist is focused on providing students "individualized interventions" that are appropriate for their needs, Ford said. Sometimes, that means limited or no police involvement.

"People who hold marginalized identities experience the police differently," he added. That means a general police response could potentially elevate situations instead of helping them.

Here's how OSU Assist works and how it hopes to improve in 2023.

How Does OSU Assist Work?

When a student calls OSU's public safety department, the dispatcher determines who is best suited to respond: campus police, crisis responders on the OSU Assist team, or both.

OSU Assist and OSU Public Safety can co-respond in certain situations. When there are reports of weapons, violence, a medical concern, or immediate danger, campus police would need to assess the situation first, Ford explained.

The OSU Assist team is available for students Wednesday through Sunday from 1 p.m.-1 a.m. The team has four responders with various degrees and experiences, such as working in university settings, child welfare, advocacy support, and social work.

"They aren't just people that want to work in mental health. They are people who have had lived experiences on campus communities and have seen how mental health can be affected by a number of different facets," Ford said.

An OSU Assist-only response can only be dispatched in nonmedical emergencies, where there are no threats of weapons or violence. From there, the program typically responds to situations where a student might benefit from having additional support.

"Let's say a parent is calling because they haven't heard from their student in a while. That might be something we respond to to determine if the student is safe," said Ford.

"[Or] it could be that there is some difficult news we need to give to a student … we want to make sure they are given information in a respectful and private way."

The assist team might also be dispatched for suicide ideation, survivor support, or other mental health concerns. However, according to Ford, whether they are dispatched varies from case to case.

OSU Assist responds and stabilizes the student and calls on additional first responders if necessary. Afterward, the team can connect the student with the Student Care team, which can put the student in touch with other available resources — from Counseling and Psychological Services to University Housing & Dining Services.

Centering Student Voices

By opening up communication channels between students and the many resources available, OSU students can make informed decisions about how they wish to proceed, Ford said.

"We want to promote and support students' autonomy," he said.

OSU Assist hopes to expand – with intentionality – each semester, Ford said. Listening to the OSU campus community will be key to strengthening the program so it can serve students for years to come.

"We don't want to jump into the deep end without learning how to swim first," Ford said. "Doing this slowly is intentional and shows the core OSU campus that we are serious and that we want to do it right."

Ford said he hopes students seeking to institute and improve alternative emergency response services on their own campus will start the conversation.

"Self-advocacy goes a long way, and I think people are learning more that they need to listen to student voices because students are telling us what they need," Ford said. We just have to listen."

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available if you or someone you know is considering suicide: Call 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The National Sexual Assault Hotline is available at 1-800-656-4673. If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, please seek legal counsel.