Hopkins announced the creation of the Johns Hopkins University Behavioral Health Crisis Support Team (JHU BHCST) to respond to behavioral and mental health crises on and around Homewood Campus on May 18. In an email to constituents, University President Ronald J. Daniels, Acting Vice President for Public Safety Connor Scott and Vice Provost for Student Health and Well-Being Kevin Shollenberger promoted the initiative as part of the University’s commitment to reimagining public safety.
They noted that currently, campus safety and security officers are the first and sole in-person responders to behavioral health crises.
In an interview with The News-Letter, Scott clarified that the team will pair behavioral health clinicians with Crisis-Intervention-Trained (CIT) security officers during shifts seven days a week. The team will be dispatched by the Counseling Center or Security Office, which receive the calls, and the clinician will take the lead in the response.
Shollenberger stated that the University created this team in order to improve the well-being and safety of students, faculty and the community in an interview with The News-Letter.
“It was really out of a response to a growing need supported by our data and really a desire from our JHU and larger community for a more comprehensive public health response to an individual who may be experiencing a behavioral or mental health crisis in or around our campuses,” Shollenberger said.
Scott added that security officers are not always the optimal first responders in a mental health emergency.
“There just is a realization on our side and throughout the public safety community that we are not always the right resource,” he said. “Ideally, you would have a single practitioner who [works] hand in hand with the first response team to be part of that solution or really take[s] the lead in some situations in supporting those people.”
One Hopkins student shared concerns about how the University handled her own mental health crisis in 2019. The News-Letter granted her anonymity to protect her privacy; she requested the pseudonym Abigail.
Abigail recalled that the security guard who tried to help her during her crisis was unsure of what to do and requested additional guards and police intervention. Abigail insisted on going home. However, the police refused her request, denying her access to a clinician and taking her to a hospital. Once at the hospital, Abigail learned that she would be kept there against her will.
She does not believe that the University acted appropriately in her case.
“I really got the feeling that the University didn't care about me,” she said. “Their response just escalated the situation. I was already clearly anxious and depressed and they just exacerbated that.”
Although Abigail believes the JHU BHCST is a step in the right direction, she feels the University must do more to promote the mental well-being of students.
“They need a protocol for this kind of mental health crisis,” she said. “It's something that is warranted, but I think that the University has the resources to do a lot more. We need to be proactive in preventing those crises from happening in the first place.”
Abigail was discharged 36 hours after arriving at the hospital.
Rising senior Rebecca Reed, an outgoing co-public relations chair for A Place to Talk (APTT), expressed support for the new program while noting that longer-term care is necessary.
“I think it is really important to acknowledge that these behavioral crises are not something that just need one response. They need continuing treatment a lot of the time,” Reed said.
Shollenberger highlighted that the main goal of this intervention is to provide immediate assistance as well as follow-up care.
Reed claimed that although she herself had positive experiences with the Counseling Center, it is understaffed and requires more resources to meet the needs of students.
Rising sophomore Carter Brady, an incoming APTT room chair, emphasized that mental health is the basis of many crises students are facing.
“Involving someone who is trained in de-escalation and in public health is a great way to address these crises, which a lot of the time may revolve around mental health even if they are manifesting themselves in different ways,” Brady said in an interview with The News-Letter.
In an interview with The News-Letter, rising junior Kerim Bali, a peer listener with APTT, hopes that the initiative utilizes existing resources.
“Hiring and training new professionals sounds great, but I do hope it’s also connected to the resources that already exist at Hopkins because I do think there are some very valuable resources here,” Bali said.
Shollenberger added that the services provided by the team will be available to students, faculty and community residents, pointing out that the University will not try to assess in the moment of crisis whether or not a person is affiliated with Hopkins. For members of the Baltimore community, additional support will be provided by the Baltimore Crisis Response, Inc.
English and History Professor Lawrence Jackson argued that the University has many other commitments to uphold in order to ensure an equitable society.
“It is true that economic justice (such as the $15 wage for contract workers), quality public education and recreation are key measures that Hopkins needs to guarantee for the communities on its campus borders,” Jackson wrote in an email to The News-Letter.
However, Jackson acknowledged that this is a step in the right direction.
“Emphasizing the role of public health clinicians and creating a model to deploy them as part of a public safety response, instead of arming a private police branch, strikes me as a fine step on the road to national leadership on this question for our University,” Jackson wrote.
In their email, administrators explained that they had held over 15 listening sessions with over 250 people from different organizations to gather input on the initiative.
A resident of the Abell neighborhood, however, recalled being removed from a virtual listening session after being invited by the Charles Village Community Benefits District in an email to The News-Letter. This resident’s identity will remain anonymous, as they are employed by the University and The News-Letter offers anonymity to individuals who are at risk of retaliation by disclosing information.
“We were invited by Charles Village Community Benefit District,” the resident wrote. “Community members, medical students, an epidemiologist and local resident that works to help victims of the opioid crisis, residents and many other stakeholders were immediately removed from the meeting just for being present and without any justification."
“Kevin Shollenberger proved extremely detrimental to students and ill equipped to handle the mental health and wellness crises we raised at the Sit-in,” they wrote.
In an email to The News-Letter, Assistant Vice President for External Relations Karen Lancaster shared that the University only admitted registered attendees to the meeting.
“We issued invitations to a broad range of community partners to register for a series of virtual (Zoom) meetings to discuss the initiative,” Lancaster wrote. “One of those invitations was shared by another party broadly on social media, and many unregistered individuals attempted to join the meeting, and were not admitted.”
The Abell resident, however, provided The News-Letter with a screenshot proving they attempted to register for the event.
In their email, the administrators did not explain why some individuals were not approved to attend but noted that feedback and questions can still be emailed to the University.
The Johns Hopkins University Sit-in provided The News-Letter with a video of its interaction with Shollenberger during the 2019 occupation of Garland Hall, arguing that this interaction exemplified negligence from Shollenberger.
“[Shollenberger] would only confirm that our emails had been received by the President’s Office but would not answer as to whether or not Student Affairs had the authority to hold a public meeting to hear our concerns,” the Sit-in wrote. “After we were finally granted a meeting with administrators, Student Affairs restricted the meeting to not allow non-JHU affiliates and Shollenberger eventually canceled the meeting.”
According to the Sit-in, part of the reason that the occupation of Garland Hall ended in arrests is because the University refused to meet with students while community members were present. The Sit-in also believes that the University discontinued its Student Advisory Committee for Security after the group demanded community members without affiliation to Hopkins attend its meetings.
The Sit-in cited these experiences as reasons it does not support Shollenberger’s involvement with the new initiative.
“Shollenberger has intimidated protesters and misrepresented our efforts to meet in good faith as a community organization. We have also never resolved the incident of his office videotaping members while they slept,” it wrote. “For these reasons we are alarmed to see that he is leading meetings for the [BHCST] and not surprised to hear that residents are again being barred from JHU’s attempts at community engagement two years later.”
Lancaster expanded on Shollenberger’s involvement in the initiative.
“Vice Provost Shollenberger has a long and proven track record of advocacy for the health and well-being of Johns Hopkins students, as well as for all of those in our community,” she wrote. “His leadership has been instrumental in the significant expansion of the University’s health and well-being resources, including the development of this innovative initiative.”
The BHCST program will launch as a pilot in fall 2021 in the areas surrounding Homewood Campus. The University hopes to expand it to other Hopkins campuses in Baltimore in the future.
Laura Wadsten contributed reporting to this article.