After a series of mass shootings grabbed the national spotlight this past year, concerns about access to mental health resources came to the forefront of the national agenda. For the University community, however, the importance of mental wellness has been a central focus for some time now, and its importance is brought forth time and time again with the devastating losses of students like Yeardley Love, and most recently, first-year student Jake Cusano. Increasing access to mental health resources is a year-round task, however, for experts and care-providers at the University.
Identifying the Problem
Although awareness of mental health problems is at a better level than some might imagine, one of the first steps to increasing access to these resources is to remove the stigma and misconceptions that surround mental illness, said Hillary Barry, the peer health education coordinator at the University’s Office of Health Promotion.
“Thirty-eight percent of U.Va. students felt they needed help with mental health in the past year,” Barry said. “[Being aware that these problems exist] is much more important to a successful college experience than students might realize.”
Although the office’s Stall Seat Journal posters usually focus on alcohol and tobacco use, the office has used data from the Healthy Minds Survey to publish a mental health edition of the Stall Seat Journal for the past two years. These new posters highlight depression and anxiety statistics at the University, information on how to talk to friends who may be experiencing mental wellness issues, and resources that are available to students who need help.
Jamie Leonard, director of the Office of Health Promotion, cited both the surge of available data and the efficacy of mental health treatment programs as the reason for the Office’s expansion into mental health treatment. “We’re looking at the needs of the students, and more students come into the University with a diagnosable mental disorder,” she said. “We are better at diagnosing now.”
The Safety Net
Student Health’s Counseling and Psychological Services is the main arm of the University’s attempts to address students’ mental wellness. CAPS provides access to counseling, sponsors mental wellness events and runs a strong suicide prevention program, CAPS Interim Director Matt Zimmerman said. “The policy is strong, and may contribute to reducing the risk of suicide at U.Va.,” he said. “The suicide rate is one-third of the national average for public universities our size.”
CAPS, however, cannot effectively support all students’ mental health needs without interdepartmental cooperation, Zimmerman said.
“We are committed to communicating with other departments to provide a safety net and identify students who might be at risk,” he said.
Zimmerman explained that it is often professors or deans who identify students in need of counseling. From there, CAPS can offer counseling programs to specific student, consult — only with written consent from the student — with the student’s friends and family, and refer them to an outside health provider, if necessary.
CAPS has found that administrators, professors and resident life employees play such an important role in student outreach, and has devoted much time and effort to educate these relevant outside figures on how to deal with delicate mental health issues.
The Role of Resident Life
One of the most crucial mental wellness resources for students can be their resident advisors. The University helps train RAs in handling situations with students they feel might be at risk, said Patty Phonemany, a RA and third-year Engineering student.
For Phonemany, whose dorm organized an event to allow students to anonymously get things off their chest, it can often be as simple as staying attentive and feeling out the right time to approach students she notices seem stressed.
“Stress piles up so I try to alleviate what I can by talking them through the schoolwork and then hoping they’ll open up from there,” she said. “It’s usually not something that will be solved in a matter of minutes or days, but eventually you’ll get there. As long as you show that you care, that’s what matters.”
Although Phonemany praised the training and education programs that CAPS provides to University and resident life staff, she acknowledged that the stigma attached to mental health issues often prevents students from reaching out for help.
Second-year Nursing student Lauren Connelly, president of the University’s chapter of To Write Love On Her Arms, hopes her organization, which seeks to find help for those struggling with depression, addiction and thoughts of self-injury, will be able to help destroy that stigma. “The resources are there but at the same time, mental health is still so stigmatized [that] people still aren’t comfortable reaching out,” she said. “You really need the support of the people around you. Having the courage to ask the question ‘Hey, are you okay?’ can really open someone up who might not have been ready to talk before.”
As part of the TWLOHA national non-profit group, the University’s chapter advertises itself and hosts events like open mic nights where performers talk about how music and poetry have helped them work through personal struggles.
“As a club, we try to provide students with a safe, stigma-free place to talk about whatever’s on their mind,” she said. “[We want them] to always feel they have support when they need it.”
Support in Action
Although day-to-day operations of the various mental health organizations are essential, the coordinated response to Cusano’s death showcases these organizations at their best. As soon as University administration found out about Cusano’s suicide, the Office of the Dean of Students identified students most in need of support and reached out to CAPS. From there, CAPS teamed up with resident life to hold hall meetings in Cusano’s dorm.
Andrew Kwon, the 2016 First Year Council president and a close friend of Cusano, said the resident life community was a great resource for grief-stricken students.
“The RA in Jake’s hall is doing a really good job of getting everyone on the same page and keeping everyone in perspective,” Kwon said. “We leaned on each other during that time period, [and] made sure to continue communicating.”
During the candlelight vigil held in Cusano’s honor, TWLOHA members were present to share their experiences, and Connelly had also arranged for CAPS Crisis Management Coordinator Lenny Carter to speak about the grieving process at the vigil.
To Kwon, the vigil’s success was a demonstration of the safety net that Zimmerman discussed. “It showed everyone that came [to the event] how strong the U.Va. community and support system we have really is,” he said.
CAPS will be hosting a Mental Wellness Screening Day Tuesday, March 5 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Newcomb.