Photo of Omar Troche and Gwen Austin

CWRU launches pilot co-responder team to enhance mental health crisis assistance

As concerns surrounding mental health grow across the U.S., two Case Western Reserve University departments are teaming up to ensure members of the campus community get the support they need in times of crisis.

The Outreach, Assessments, Resources and Response (OARR) co-responder team is a pilot program between the Division of Public Safety and University Health and Counseling Services (UHCS) that pairs a crisis intervention team-trained police officer and licensed clinician to answer mental-health calls. 

Including a licensed clinician in police response, leadership in public safety and UHCS say, can help ensure community members get the support they need and can alleviate heightened tensions in situations, as the clinician is trained to not only recognize various mental health issues, developmental disabilities and substance-use-related issues but also in how to de-escalate situations that include such additional stressors.

Case Western Reserve’s OARR co-responder team is CWRU Police Officer Omar Troche and Gwen Austin, who works for both public safety and UHCS. Troche is a seasoned police officer, having worked in community police units through the City of Cleveland and the Cleveland Metropolitan Housing Authority, especially focused on providing services to underprivileged children as well as those with mental health conditions. Austin has an extensive background in crisis intervention, having worked at a large correctional facility in Tucson and an emergency room in Virginia.

“I find great fulfillment in working with individuals who are undergoing crises, offering them support, instilling hope, and creating a safe environment for them,” said Austin. “While being passionate is crucial, I also recognize the significance of honing my crisis skills within highly demanding work settings, as it enables me to effectively serve our students facing crises and provide them with the necessary support during these challenging periods.”

Austin and Troche have worked in tandem to respond to numerous calls since August. Together, they provide swift and high-quality mental health crisis assistance to the CWRU community—ensuring that no one is left to navigate the complexities of a mental health crisis alone.

In light of tomorrow (Oct. 28) being National First Responders Day, The Daily sat down with Austin and Troche to learn more about their hopes for the initiative. 

Q: What kind of feedback or reports have you received regarding the impact of the co-responder team’s interventions in defusing or calming crisis situations? 

A: Troche: The feedback we’ve been receiving has been increasingly positive! Students are approaching us more, especially now that they’re getting to know who we are, and they’ve been saying they’re happy to have us because we’re available and something that they’ve never had before. They’re excited about us and the program, and our call volume has increased over the last couple of months. Other officers and staff have been giving us great feedback as well.

Austin: The students we have had the opportunity to meet thus far have said that our team presence has alleviated their usual anxiety when interacting with law enforcement. The availability of both a clinician and an officer during wellness checks has significantly reduced their fear, which is particularly beneficial as this fear might otherwise deter individuals from reaching out for assistance.

Q: Gwen, you have extensive experience training public safety officers. How is this training helping officers respond to people in distress more effectively? 

A: Austin: One unexpected aspect of my experience has been the positive reception from other officers, not just my partner. There have been instances in which I have responded to calls with officers other than Omar, and they have approached me afterward to express their appreciation for what they have learned while observing my use of de-escalation skills, as opposed to their usual approach of taking control of a situation based solely on police training. Additionally, I actively participate in debriefing sessions for challenging calls at the police department, providing feedback even for those calls I was not personally present for. 

Q: How do you handle follow-up procedures to ensure that individuals receive the necessary support and services after a crisis has been resolved? 

A: Austin: We have developed standard operating procedures that outline a comprehensive process for follow-ups. Extensive research has taught us the paramount significance of ensuring that individuals are genuinely linked to continuing care such as counseling, medication management, and case management, while simultaneously mitigating the risk of future crises. As the co-responder clinician on the OAAR team, I am responsible for conducting follow-up phone calls on the days I am on duty. On days when I am unavailable, I delegate this responsibility to a designated member of the counseling team at CWRU.

Q: How do you hope the co-responder team can help public safety officers in their jobs, especially allowing them to focus on calls that pose a risk to the public? 

A: Troche: Having a clinician available is a huge deterrent and a softer approach than what people are used to. People recognize when Gwen is there and understand her role. Now, people are more willing to talk and communicate with us than they have before Gwen. They’re more ready to receive help and cooperate after talking with her. 

Austin: Responding to mental health crisis calls in a manner akin to addressing a criminal incident has the potential to exacerbate the situation. When an individual in crisis is further agitated, their behavior may be fear-driven, leading to the mistaken perception of intent to harm. 

By helping officers view such individuals through a trauma-informed lens, their response can be shaped in a way that significantly reduces risks. Additionally, since crisis-related calls often require substantial time and attention, my partner and I are available to handle these calls, alleviating the workload of other officers. This enables them to respond promptly to other calls, ultimately enhancing overall public safety.

The co-responder team is a pilot program so is not available 24/7. However, if you or an individual you know are experiencing an emergency that could benefit from the co-responder team, call the Case Western Reserve University Police Department’s emergency number at 216.368.3333 and let them know you are calling about a mental health crisis. If the OARR team is available, they will be dispatched to the call. (You can make this call anonymously, if desired.)

For any issues that are concerning, but not emergencies, call 216.368.3300 (campus non-emergency line).

For more information on the OARR team, visit the Public Safety website.