By: Aleksandra Sidorova
President Alexander Enyedi sent out a campus-wide email Sept. 2 announcing an expansion of mental health resources available to students thanks to financial support from the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. The new programs, some launching as early as October, include more accessible counseling services and activities to relieve stress on campus.
Cori Jackson, the interim vice president for enrollment and student success, said the federal government recognized COVID-19 as a great challenge to students’ mental health. Jackson mentioned several stressors college students might be faced with in their college life: transitioning to and from online learning, living with a roommate, being unable to relieve stress through their hobbies.
“We’ve seen trends of increased mental health issues prior to COVID, so COVID certainly made that even more exacerbated,” Jackson said.
Jackson said the college was required to spend “a percentage” of the HEERF money on mental health resources, and within a few weeks, her team crafted a plan that was later approved by SUNY. As Director of Budget and Financial Reporting Magen Renadette clarified, the amount designated for mental health initiatives is $389,666, which is 5% of the HEERF money.
The largest new project is the year-long contract between the Student Health and Counseling Center and the company Business Health Services to provide students with 24-hour access to telecounseling services. According to Christy Minck, the assistant director of counseling, students can receive eight sessions “per identified problem” free of charge. The types of appointments available are “traditional,” “drop-in” and emergency. Students book “traditional” appointments in advance and see a provider consistently, “drop-in” appointments are same-day appointments, and emergency appointments allow a student who may be suicidal, homicidal or otherwise unable to function to receive immediate care.
“It’s a pretty exciting program,” Minck said. “We don’t offer walk-ins except for emergencies only, so you don’t have to be experiencing an emergency to have a drop-in session with a person with telecounseling.”
The college is currently in the process of integrating the software for telecounseling services, expected to be available for student use in November. Minck said additional counseling services would help the SHCC meet student demand as it grows over the course of the semester.
The SHCC is also partnering with Behavioral Health Services North, a local clinic, to bring in a psychiatric nurse practitioner to work at the SHCC one day a week and a mental health counselor to work 4:30 to 9 p.m. two days a week beginning in October.
All University Police officers will be completing the 8-hour course “Mental Health First Aid for Public Safety” to complement the 20 hours of mental health training they have received as part of their basic training. UP Chief Patrick Rascoe said officers would likely complete the course during winter break when UP’s work is “slower.”
UP is typically the first resource for students experiencing a mental health crisis outside of Student Health and Counseling Center hours, Rascoe said. Rascoe also said welfare checks are the fifth largest type of call UP receives. As of last Friday, UP has had 14 welfare check calls and one aided mental health call, where “we would know immediately that there’s a mental health situation going on.” Rascoe said it was common for UP to receive four to five welfare check calls every weekend, some simply parents asking to check in on their children. Sometimes, a roommate or community advocate would ask for a welfare check, and sometimes students come to the police station on their own volition simply wanting to talk to someone.
“It’s important that police officers, especially on a college campus, where we do have so many instances of dealing with people who are stressed, have the training to be able to evaluate and help,” Rascoe said.
Mental health training also helps officers de-escalate situations without the use of force.
“Students have differing opinions about the police,” Jackson said. “Some students have had poor experiences with police, and that’s a scary thing for them, so we’re going out of our way to make sure that our officers have high-level training to really be sensitive to those types of mental health situations and help students get the mental health care that they need.”
Places intended for leisure and relaxation will make their appearance on campus starting in October. Interim Director for the Center of Student Involvement Jacob Avery is coordinating the Zen Zone and weekly Fireside Fridays with “cookies and hot cocoa.” Avery has also been a central figure in the renovation of Burghy’s Lounge at Angell College Center.
“Well-being and mental health, everybody sort of has their own way that they approach that. For some people, it’s counseling,” Jackson said. “For others, it’s opportunities to gather with peers. It might be about personal meditation. Our plan, as a campus, is to hit a lot of different angles of ways to approach mental health and well-being.”
Whether these services will continue next year will depend on student feedback. Jackson said that if some services continue to be in high demand, “the campus would have to evaluate how they would find the resources to continue with these things.”
“I don’t think the government is going to give us another influx of funding,” Jackson said. “I think it really would be coming on us to say, okay, this met student demand, filled a need, helped us to retain students who might not have been able to stay otherwise if they couldn’t access those services — it’ll be on us to see what we should renew, what we’ll be able to find funding to renew.”