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STUdent Mental Health a Priority for Nicole Pera and Letitia Haywood

By January 3, 2023Featured Posts, STU News

Mental health challenges across the country and at STU continue to rise, and the Division of Student Affairs is working to meet the needs of our growing student population.

In a survey conducted in 2020 with 485 STU students, 21 percent of them reported bouts of depression or anxiety. In addition, 6 percent of those students reported suicidal thoughts over the past 12 months.

Mental-health issues have become even more prevalent since the COVID-19 epidemic hit the U.S. in March of 2020.

While the stigma surrounding mental health has reduced, 42 percent of survey respondents still said they would think less of their fellow students if they knew they were receiving mental-health treatment.

Based on these survey results, the Division of Student Affairs, led by Matthew Roche, have begun tackling the issue around access to services, education on mental health, and reducing the stigma of campus community members.

In summer 2020, STU partnered with The JED Foundation to expedite this process. Their signature program, JED Campus, is designed to guide schools through a collaborative process of program and policy development. Their goal is to build on existing student mental-health initiatives and prevention efforts regarding substance use and suicide.

JED Campus’ goals perfectly fit the University’s aim to foster positive and systemic change for the well-being of our students.

“Right when I was hired here, we applied for the grant, and STU was chosen as one of the recipients,” Roche said of the four-year program that runs through the spring of 2024. “That initial ‘Healthy Minds Survey,’ conducted by the University of Michigan, told us where we were falling short in our mental-health services and student well-being.

“We received a chart of 88 points of feedback to improve our services, practices, and policies in this important area.” As a result of this feedback, the Division has made tangible progress in re-imagining the mental health services on campus:

  • Contracting with a telehealth provider to supplement in person counseling sessions
  • Creating a leave of absence policy.
  • Formalizing “return to learn” protocols for students who go on medical leave.
  • Creating mental-health seminars on topics such as suicide awareness, self-care, and life skills.

“We have also greatly improved our CARE Team, which stands for Campus Assessment Response and Evaluation,” Roche said. “This is where faculty, staff, family members and fellow students can report to us any concerning behavior, community members of concern, or threats.”

“The CARE team meets every Tuesday, and they go over all reports. The team creates action plans for every student or staff member that has been reported. We want to make sure we give them the support services they need, connecting them with available resources. At some schools, this is called a ‘threat assessment’ team. But we call it CARE because we do not want it to be just about threats. We want to know about our students who are in distress so we can do proactive outreach, helping them navigate through whatever they are going through. This model is more supportive than the alternative threat assessment team.”

The next step at STU is to conduct training for faculty and staff so that they are better able to recognize students in distress, as they are the front-line individuals who work with our students and will notice changes in behavior, strange actions, or signs of concern.

Recently, STU hired a key part of its team, bringing in Nicole Pera as the Director of Student Health. Nicole joins STU from Henderson Behavioral Health and begins January 3rd. To better serve the Student Health Department, the Division of Student Health has also hired a new position, the Associate Dean of Students, which will oversee Student Health, International Student Services, and the music programs. Letitia Haywood, another licensed mental health counselor, will serve in this role and begin on January 3rd.

Roche emphasized that tackling mental-health awareness is a multi-disciplinary focus. “It’s not just the Student Health Department,” he said.

Toward that end, Student Affairs has started a “Stress Less for Success” program, which is held during the last week of every semester and is open to all STUdents and STUwards.

Each day features a stress-buster activity such as a petting zoo or chair massages. One of the most popular events during that week is “Midnight Breakfast,” which is served to the students by STU staff and cabinet members. “We routinely have 300 students lined up at midnight for breakfast,” Roche said.

Roche said another tool new to STU is called The Virtual Care Group, a telehealth service available to all students that includes counseling sessions, on-demand crisis counseling, and life skills sessions. Every student is automatically registered for this program and simply needs to activate their account through the link emailed to them every 30 days.

The Virtual Care Group was onboarded at STU in one day, which is a rare feat for a new vendor. “Telehealth has become a big player in this field, and we are excited to provide this offering to our students,” said Roche.

Roche is clearly in his element at STU. Rather than continue as a practicing lawyer, he knew that he always loved the education field and guiding students. Fortunately for STU, he is here on campus, and his impact is being felt by our community.

“In general, we’ve tried to destigmatize mental-health issues,” Roche said of his time at STU. “We are trying to be more proactive so we can improve the student experience. We have made a lot of progress in a short time but continue to create new initiatives, student spaces, and programming to meet student needs, including related to mental health and well-being. The students are our priority and making their experience at STU magical is the goal of our team in Student Affairs.”

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