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An image of an Ithaca College public safety vehicle. Photo credit: IC Public Safety

The Loneliness Radio Project, Ep. 3: IC student visit with public safety raises questions about mental health calls [AUDIO]

Welcome to the third episode of The Loneliness Project, an audio production of WRFI and the Ithaca College Park Scholars Program. From mental health to social media, reporters throughout the Ithaca community are analyzing the issue of loneliness through multiple lenses. This piece is also part of a larger multimedia collaboration with The Ithaca Voice and The Cornell Daily Sun.

In this piece, we unpack one student’s story and delve into the resources and gaps on the Ithaca College campus. A content warning that this piece contains mentions of suicidal ideation and encounters with public safety officers.

Parita Desai, Madison Moore, Sophia Tulp, Skylar Eagle, and Devin Kasparian reported and produced this piece. Laura Rosbrow-Telem, the news director at WRFI, directed this episode and Parita Desai mixed it. Mars Booker and Elena Piech wrote and produced the theme music. All other music was provided by Podington Bear under a Creative Commons license. We especially want to thank Engaged Cornell and The Sophie Fund for supporting this collaboration and The Park Foundation for supporting the Park Scholars Program and WRFI.

The Loneliness Project will explore more topics related to loneliness and mental health next week. Listen in on Fridays after WRFI Community Radio news headlines at 6 p.m. Tune in live at 88.1 FM in Ithaca and 91.9 FM in Watkins Glen. Or stream online at wrfi.org.

*This piece first aired on WRFI Community Radio News on Nov. 30. We are proud to say The Loneliness Radio Project won a 2019 first place award for Outstanding Public Affairs Program or Series from the New York State Broadcasters Association.

Episode 3: Ithaca College student’s encounter with public safety raises questions about mental health calls

The transcript is below. But, if you can, the full experience is better with the audio above.

Taylor Yowan is a senior at Ithaca College. Two years ago, as a sophomore, Taylor experienced a severe depressive episode. She began to fall deeper into her depression and eventually made a plan for her suicide. With notification from her psychiatrist, Ithaca College Public Safety intervened.

Taylor says, “I’m a fairly small person at five two. And so these large men kind of cornered me in my own apartment, um, and so that made me feel scared. So I started crying. And they both had guns, so I felt like I was being treated like a threat, not just to myself but to them as well. And they told me that they were going to have to take me to the hospital.”

She spent 41 hours at the Cayuga Medical Center psychiatric ward. From her dorm room to the hospital bed, Taylor says her experience left her deeply distressed and hurt.

“On Sunday evening I had put my phone on silent because I was doing homework and so I missed a call from my psychiatrist … The message I had sent to my psychiatrist was only two lines. And so I reiterated that for them. I said that I’d planned my suicide and that I was feeling very emotionless. … That was all I had sent,” she explains.

“Public Safety knocked on the door and I answered and they asked me if they knew why they were there. Because I had missed a call from my psychiatrist, I assumed that was why they were there. They didn’t believe me that that’s what I had sent to my psychiatrist.  

“And they told me that they were going to have to take me to the hospital and I asked if I could pack things because I was just wearing pajamas that couldn’t be worn outside at the time. And so, they followed me upstairs and my roommate noticed that I was visibly upset and that I was being followed by two public safety officers. She tried to comfort me and they told her that she couldn’t talk to me. My parents weren’t called so my roommates had to let my parents know what was happening because I wasn’t allowed to really talk to anyone.”

Taylor says she realizes that she made a plea for help by texting her psychiatrist. However, this was not the help she thought she would get.

The actions of the officers made her feel alone. Reflecting back, Taylor says she does not understand the rationale behind the officers’ behavior. If someone is in a fragile mental state, why not console them instead of making them uncomfortable?

“It was isolating,” she recalls. “Which is how you feel when you’re feeling suicidal – you feel very alone and like that’s the only option for you. And what they did was put me in a situation where I really was alone with people I was not comfortable with and I was at the hospital, which was terrifying.”

From a text to a missed phone call to Taylor being apprehended by two officers. How could an attempt to help a student with suicidal intentions have gone so wrong?

Clearly, Taylor’s situation is complex and involves a variety of actors, each with their own interpretation of the incident. It may be easy to sympathize with Taylor, who felt like she was mistreated while in a fragile mental state. From the perspective of Public Safety officers, a missed call combined with the possibility of a student’s suicidal intentions makes for a situation that cannot be taken lightly.

Bill Kerry is the director of Public Safety at Ithaca College. He says Taylor’s experience is one of many, and that mental health calls are increasing substantially.

“The number of calls that we’re receiving of students in crisis has definitely increased. And that’s not a one year thing. I don’t have the specific data but it’s been a trend over the last probably seven to eight years,” he judges.

Of the mental health calls made to Public Safety, about 50 percent result in a student being committed – usually voluntarily – to the Cayuga Medical Center.

Chief Kerry says that because of the increase in calls over the past couple of years, officers are beginning to reevaluate their practices regarding mental health interventions. Taylor’s experience – being confronted by two officers knocking on her door without any notice – is one practice Chief Kerry thinks needs to change.

“I don’t believe that having a police officer showing up to someone who’s in crisis from a mental health issue is the best way for us to get our students the help that they’re seeking,” Kerry acknowledges.

“There are a couple options for transport. Someone can go in an ambulance, which is a very expensive venture. If you look at seven or eight years ago, we had a lot of ambulance trips and not very many trips to the hospital in a public safety vehicle. So this is what’s happened. Why? Because the ambulance costs a lot of money that insurance companies may or may not pay for. And so, the reason we’re requested more now is because people don’t want to spend the money.

“That being said, I don’t think it’s good to have someone go in the back of a police car.  I can’t think of many situations where that is going to be a great experience for most but at the same time, right now, that’s what the college has resource wise.”

While Taylor says she began to feel more comfortable once she was settled into a police car, she wishes she knew more about her options.

“[Riding with] the public safety officer who actually took me to the hospital, I was allowed to sit in the front seat of the public safety vehicle. And he was much kinder to me while we were in the car, asking about classes and stuff, but at that point you’re by yourself and you’re on the way to the hospital and there’s no going back at that point, like that’s what’s happening to you. You’re going to have to figure it out from the point of being forcibly admitted into the hospital, what’s going to happen to you. I couldn’t ask him to turn around or ask him to evaluate me because I didn’t know the protocol. And I feel like if students were more aware or knew their rights better than maybe the process could go differently,” Taylor asserts.

There are a number of reasons Public Safety officers might check in on a student. One situation is if they get a call from a resident director, peer, staff or faculty member worried about a student’s safety or any action they may take next. In these cases, officers will locate the student and assess the situation. They may make a safety plan with the student. In other instances, if the student is deemed a threat to themselves or others, they may be voluntarily, or sometimes involuntarily, transported to Cayuga Medical Center for evaluation. This is mandated by a New York State law, as well as college policy.

Here’s Bill Kerry: “There’s typically two different mental health laws that are more common. There’s many mental hygiene laws that fall under various ways a person can be committed. The two most common we have on campus are 941s and 945s. 941s involve law enforcement, 945s involve our counseling center and that’s when a licensed clinician is mandating that a student seek some form of psychological assessment or behavioral assessment at the hospital.”

Ithaca College Public Safety Officer Corinne Searles routinely responds to mental health calls made from students. She says it is the responsibility of public safety officers to first assess a student’s mental state and respond accordingly.

“If they come out and say that they have suicidal intentions, obviously, that’s pretty severe, and we want to act on that immediately. But if it’s something where they’re just not sure how to cope or what kind of resources they need to reach out to, then we try to go through those avenues first. Obviously it’s case-by-case, but definitely, we would complete paperwork to take them into mental health custody, 941, and take them off to CMC for evaluation on that. But a lot of times, students that reach out to us are willing to go voluntarily and at that point, we just provide a courtesy transport up to CMC for them to get taken care of,” she explains.

Public Safety says emergencies on campus related to mental health have steadily increased. This reflects a national trend across college campuses country wide.  Data over a six week period from last semester compared to this semester shows that mental health transports from the college to the Cayuga Medical Center psychiatric ward are up significantly. Students are requesting more mental health resources than ever before. But some, like Taylor, think that current public safety policy and campus resources aren’t meeting students’ growing need.

Officer Searles has been a patrol officer for a year and a half and was not on the task force at the time of this incident. However, speaking to her own experiences at IC, she says circumstances like these put Public Safety officers in a difficult position.

“It’s a very hard topic, because unfortunately, sometimes people are not extremely happy with the way the process works,” she admits. “At this time, that’s kind of the process. We can’t control how CMC handles things, we can’t always control how we have to act on the information we have. So sometimes I know students are like, ‘Well, I was feeling this way. I’m not anymore.’ But we still have to act on that and make sure we get that safety plan in place.”

Taylor reflects on what could have been improved.

“What could have been better was them talking to me in a soothing tone instead of accusatory. And even as I was explaining this to him, he was like, ‘Well, you were pretty emotional. Could you maybe be exaggerating how this went?’ And yes, I was emotional, but that doesn’t mean those emotions weren’t valid and that doesn’t mean that having severe emotions makes what they did any better. In my opinion it kind of makes it worse because you’re heightening the situation. And I think if you’re truly concerned about the wellbeing of a student that that’s just not how you should carry yourself,” Taylor concludes.

Taylor says she tried to convince the Public Safety officers that she didn’t need to be committed but says that they wouldn’t listen.

“It was so late Sunday night when I was admitted and I was just trying so hard to be like, ‘This is clearly not where I want to be. Like I have classes tomorrow, I want to be in a place where I feel safe and this is not where I feel safe,’” she recounts.

“It just felt like no matter what I said, it would have been the wrong answer unless I said something outlandish. like ‘I have these weapons in my home.’ It felt like if I had said that, that would have been more believable to them.”

Because of Taylor’s experience with Campus Safety, Taylor says she feels less inclined to reach out for help on campus in the future. This is a dilemma Officer Searles says is upsetting to her, but understandable.

“And I know it’s kind of a frustrating aspect, because I don’t want them to not call,” Searles says. “But I can definitely understand the frustrations and the fact that it’s an overwhelming process. But unfortunately, I think sometimes it just has to be that way to have the maximum effect for individuals and then it’s not as tailored as sometimes I’d like to see it for individuals.”

Chief Kerry recognizes the college response system needs updating. He is optimistic that these changes will eventually come.

“I’m very hopeful that we can get some resources here  and say, ‘What do we need?’ We need some other resources so that for serious cases where students need to go to the hospital for an evaluation, that’s fine. But let’s put another step between when the student is in crisis and when law enforcement gets involved,” he suggests.

By sharing her story, Taylor hopes that more people will become aware of the gaps in the college’s current response system to mental health crises.

“I’m a very outspoken person about things that I don’t think are right. And I felt like my experience was not an experience that I wanted other people to have or if people had those experiences that they could also talk about them . And people did reach out to me that had different but equally traumatizing experiences with public safety and their mental health,” she shares.

After going public with her story, Taylor says she found a small sense of closure from her peers.  However, she’s still unhappy with the lack of response from public safety.

“It was heartbreaking and validating at the same time to know that other people had had worse experiences than me,” Taylor reveals. “But I was so happy that they felt comfortable to share that with me and that they were a little less afraid to talk about it, now that my story was out there.”

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This is the third episode of the Loneliness Project, an audio series by the Park Scholars Program at Ithaca College, in collaboration with WRFI. This episode was produced by Parita Desai, Madison Moore, Sophia Tulp, Skylar Eagle and Devin Kasparian. Laura Rosbrow Telem, the news director at WRFI, directed this episode. Mars Booker and Elena Piech wrote and produced the theme music. Special thanks to Engaged Cornell and the Sophie Fund for supporting this collaboration, and the Park Foundation for supporting the Park Scholars Program and WRFI.

The Loneliness Project will explore more topics related to loneliness and mental health next week. Listen in on Fridays after WRFI Community Radio news headlines at 6 p.m. Tune in live at 88.1 FM in Ithaca and 91.9 FM in Watkins Glen. Or stream online at wrfi.org.