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Task force moves ahead on campus mental health needs

Published on February 13, 2023

Task force moves ahead on campus mental health needs

counseling staff
The mental health counseling staff with director Bryce Crapser (in tie) last summer

A year after a mental health task force formed on the Eastern Connecticut State University campus, the group has a strategic plan for meeting students’ mental health needs identified in a campus-wide survey. It has received an external assessment and a detailed set of recommendations from the Jed Foundation (JED), which is guiding the project.

The strategic plan aims to meet the three main goals of a JED campus program: prevent suicide, increase mental health and reduce the problematic use of substances.

It uses an “equity in mental health framework” to identify and support the mental health needs of students of color and LGBTQ+ students.

Eastern came under the JED umbrella this past year in response to a state law requiring higher education institutions to develop task forces to address mental health services. JED is a national nonprofit organization that promotes mental health for teens and young adults. Its resources are used by colleges around the country, including all the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.

Funding for a $42,000 four-year program at Eastern came from the University, the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities central office and JED’s Morgan Stanley Foundation Fund.

“This gave us the push that was needed,” said Bryce Crapser, director of counseling services, who is overseeing the project. Eastern formed a task force of 14 administrators from all parts of campus, including the dean of students, the chief of police, faculty members and a student.  Housing directors, the athletic director, and the intercultural and pride center were also included.

“It created a group of folks that are really good at solving problems,” Crapser said. “Most are at the director level, and they can create policy.”

The group gathered information through a “Healthy Minds” survey sent to 3,700 students this past April, getting responses from 703. In the survey 69% of students responded that their mental health was not flourishing. Seventeen percent reported thoughts of suicide, and of those, 33% had created a suicide plan and nine students had attempted it, a “terrifying and sad” statistic, Crapser said. “It shows untreated mental illness can be fatal.”

Fifty-seven percent of students responding had missed from three to six days of academic work due to emotional or mental difficulties in the previous month. Nearly half said they would talk to a professor in one of their classes or an academic adviser if they had a mental health problem affecting their academic performance.

Anxiety and trauma have edged out depression among students, a reversal of what Crapser has seen in the past during his 11 years as counseling director. Nearly half of respondents reported severe or moderate anxiety, in line with national statistics. Fifty-eight percent of students said they need help for emotional or mental health problems or challenges.

The good news is that they can get it on campus; counseling services sees 95% of the students who request help, Crapser said. And 57% of students surveyed said they would know where to go on campus to find professional help, with another 21% “somewhat aware” of where to find help.

Nearly a third of the respondents said they had used marijuana over the previous 30 days; another third had not used alcohol in that period while two thirds had used it once or more. Use of drugs other than marijuana was negligible, according to the survey.

After that baseline assessment, two representatives from JED came to campus for a two-day site visit this past August. They met with students, the task force and counselors and visited the Student Health Service to get a better idea of the climate. Four weeks later, they sent a strategic plan for improvements, showing examples of best practices at other universities.

The task force has since broken into four subcommittees to address eight areas recommended for improvement. Among these are, developing a peer support program, identifying high risk areas on campus, developing after-hours protocols and a crisis phone line, and consolidating mental health services into an integrated Wellness/Mental Health Services Center.

A recommendation for faculty and staff training on “mental health first aid” will be implemented over spring break, providing tools to recognize symptoms in students and offer guidance on support.

Many of the JED recommendations affirmed plans already underway to deal with mental health issues, Crapser said. For example, the task force is looking at safety issues on the roof of the Cervantes garage and crisis phone lines.

After completing a four-year program, with another student survey to be conducted in the final year, Eastern will become known as a “JED campus,” he added, showing that it has completed a rigorous evaluation of its mental health services and addressed recommendations to improve them. Eastern will continue to have access to JED resources after the four years.

Prevention is a hard sell, he said, because when it’s working, nothing is happening.

“We actually do have a pretty mental health aware campus,” he added.

Written by by Lucinda Weiss