While existing research on the incidence of mental illness among college students may differ, one thing is clear: a big chunk of the students at your institution will experience mental illness at some point during their enrollment. After all, college students are dealing with major life transitions, including their environments and lifestyles, and academic, financial and social stressors.
That’s why Barbara Blacklock, the disability services program coordinator at the University of Minnesota, has devoted more than a decade to ensuring that students at her institution who are experiencing mental health problems have the support and resources they need.
At her institution, 75 percent of students registered with her unit have invisible disabilities, and of those, 42 percent are dealing with mental health conditions, she said.
It all started back in 2002, when her unit received a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education to identify barriers and opportunities with mental health disabilities. Hers was one of 11 partner institutions working on the grant.
As part of the grant work, she conducted three focus groups at her institution: one with administrators and faculty, another with campus and community mental health providers, and another with students whose primary disabilities were mental health–related. Student-participants were recruited through the disability services unit, with a $50 incentive for taking part in the focus groups.
Focus group participants helped identify some key barriers, along with potential strategies to tackle those problems. But student-participants also consistently asked that the findings of the groups not just sit on a shelf somewhere, but be shared across campus. And that’s just what Blacklock and her colleague, Betty Benson, did.
“We didn’t have any more grant money, so we just did what we could to disseminate our findings on our own campus,” Blacklock said. “As we did that, we also asked people across campus if they would like to work with us to reduce and remove the barriers identified through our work.”
Representatives from the counseling and mental health centers, faculty members, and staff from various different service units stepped forward.
One of the first things they did was search the institution’s website using keywords that students experiencing mental health issues might input, such as “depression,” “anxiety” and “suicide.” They were astounded that the things they expected to pop up, like disability services and the counseling center websites, never came up.
“Since that’s how students will likely try to access campus resources, we knew we needed to reach out to the upper administration and explain that this was a serious issue,” she said. “If people don’t know where to go or have the information they need, they’re going to feel really isolated.”
Following a meeting with the provost, the Provost’s Committee on Student Mental Health was born. The committee isn’t a behavioral intervention or crisis response team. Rather, its goal is to proactively remove barriers for students with mental health issues.
Following the meeting with the provost, Blacklock then began calling members of departments she and the provost thought should be represented on the committee, including the housing, police, e-learning and information technology offices, and the Academy of Distinguished Teachers, a group of the most distinguished faculty on campus. Ninety percent of the time, department directors offered themselves up to serve, rather than assigning duty to someone else, she said. Now nine years old, the committee has 24 members. Blacklock serves as co-chair.
The group worked collaboratively to develop a website, www.mentalhealth.umn.edu, that offers guidance and resources for students, faculty and staff members on a wide variety of issues related to mental health. The director of the IT department, then called the Office of Distributed Education and Technology, donated a Web designer from his unit to help make the project a reality.
When faculty or staff members call her in regard to situations involving students with mental health issues, she directs people to the website, explaining that they can find help on how to respond, plus resources to share with students. She also invites them to call her back if they have additional questions or concerns after reviewing the information on the site.
“Often, the reaction is ‘Oh my God, I didn’t know about this,’” she said.
The problem was that creating the site was not enough. Awareness of the new resource was needed. A good thing about having directors of different departments serving on the committee was that often, they could contribute money from their respective budgets to different projects. That allowed the committee to do things like hold faculty information sessions and hand out promotional freebies like pens and computer brushes with the site’s address on them. In the last few years, it’s trained more than 2,600 faculty and staff members.
The committee also launched the “Click + Win” campaign, held each fall. Posters about the website are placed across campus, and students are encouraged to go on the site and then answer several questions about it to be entered to win a prize. The first year, 15,000 participated for the chance to win a $1,000 award.
“There are some real consequences of not having a committee like this on campus,” she said. “For one, if a student with a mental illness goes untreated, he may end up leaving school, and that’s a seat in a class that’s no longer filled. And that student may request a refund, which is another financial impact on the institution.”
Plus, when students don’t have the right mental health resources at their fingertips, they may wait until they’re in crisis mode to seek disability services. When students understand what help is available and access it before reaching crisis mode, the time and energy that DS providers must expend to serve those students is significantly less.
Lastly, without appropriate mental health resources, students in emotional distress can act out violently, hurting themselves or others and creating a campus safety hazard, she added.
Committee’s effectiveness tied to work strategy
Committees can take a long time to reach decisions, never mind actually implement those decisions. But that’s not the case for the University of Minnesota’s Provost’s Committee on Student Mental Health. Since its inception, the committee has accomplished a lot, from creating a mental health website to organizing various awareness campaigns and training faculty and staff across campus on mental health–related issues. Blacklock says the reason for that is that people are assigned concrete tasks and held accountable for accomplishing them.
The committee meets for two hours a month in the morning. Someone takes minutes, which conclude with a summary of who said they will do what. The next meeting starts with an assessment of the progress on those tasks.
“This format really holds everyone accountable and keeps us moving forward,” she said. “And it works, which is pretty miraculous, given the range of offices and number of people involved.”
As word of the committee’s many accomplishments has spread, its prestige has grown, so that when individuals who serve on it leave for other institutions, finding their replacements is a breeze, Blacklock said.
For more information, you may contact Barbara Blacklock at firstname.lastname@example.org.