It’s part of Major Brad Barber’s job to ensure that the University of Florida campus is safe, but also that the 52,000 students there have somewhere to turn if they go through a mental health crisis.
The retired army officer is assistant director of the university’s police department and heads its mental health initiative. The Gainesville native, who has a Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and Master’s in sociology, started work at the school two days after his retirement from the armed forces.
Major Barber helped create the university’s specialized policing response to deal with students with mental illnesses.
“We started to talking about it after Columbine and the trend we were seeing,” Major Barber said.
Police Chief Linda Stump-Kurnick, who has headed the force for 15 years, said that around that same period in time the campus police began seeing an increase in the number of cases the police were handling with students with mental illnesses.
“I think that people would be surprised by the number of students who struggle with some type of crisis when they are in college,” Chief Stump-Kurnick said. “There used to be a stigma of talking about mental illness, but awareness of the issue and the resources available to the police have increased dramatically and I see that as a big step forward.”
The initiative started in earnest when the university police and university leaders such as the dean of students, the assistant director of counseling, and the assistant director of housing started convening quarterly meetings on how to respond to students experiencing a mental health crisis.
“We realized that each of us were having run-ins with the same students. That got us started us developing a more formalized approach,” Major Barber said.
All 90 of its officers received Crisis Intervention Training (CIT) training and the force developed procedures on how to approach people in the midst of a crisis.
The Crisis Response Team goes to the scene of incidents and helps with everything from personal and family needs to bystander and roommate issues, school needs, accommodations, and general assistance.
“We had a suicide last month and we talked with those who knew the person and needed assistance to triage the situation,” Major Barber said.
A Behavioral Consultation Team (BCT) of mental health counselors, campus ministry, members of the administration and the police department meets weekly to review individuals for behavioral consultation and case manages them when necessary. The BCT saw 830 case reviews from 2012 to 2013 and 1090 cases from 2013 to 2014, according to the University.
Major Barber said the largest number of mental health-related calls the campus police receive are for individuals who are suicidal or have talked about harming themselves. Other calls include people who are in the midst of a break up and are having a hard time.
“It’s no different than what’s happening at any other college,” he said.
Chief Stump-Kurnick said that what makes the university’s mental health initiative stand out is that everyone is invested in working on the issue.
“This is a place where people come to study, they want to be here and everyone from the students, teachers and other staff come together on this,” she said. “I feel fortunate to work in a community like this.”
The University of Florida is now a national learning center to educate other colleges on how to establish their own mental health programs.
“We want them to understand how vital this can be. By doing this, they may prevent a future tragedy,” Major Barber said.