Monday saw the debut of ProVisions’ new partner program – Covisions. CoVisions is a new series sponsored by the Student Affairs department, and is co-ordinated by Mary Fitzsimmons and Jennifer Richardson. The objective is to support the holistic needs of both students and faculty through innovative collaborations. As with ProVisions, the series follows the same format of three presenting faculty followed by an informal Question & Answer session toward the end. The first installment of CoVisions focused on the theme of “Responding to Students in Need.” The presenters for the session were Dr. Jay Hamer, Director of Counseling Services, Dennis McDonald, Vice President for Student Affairs, and Dr. Megan Fulwiler, Associate Professor of English and ProVisions legend.
Dr. Jay Hamer began proceedings by reflecting on how the counselling department and the issues within in it have changed dramatically during his 19 years at The College of Saint Rose. In those early years, there were students with depression, as well as those who experienced struggles related to adapting to college or with their roommates, but there was not the level of chronic mental illness that is part and parcel of the job today. Dr. Hamer stated that the climate has very much changed in relation to student’s mental health – it has now become a lot more pathological. There appear to be more students with serious disorders than ever before. Increased numbers of students are coming to college with prescription for medication. Dr. Hamer explained that anxiety has become the biggest issue for college students today. Anxiety attacks and debilitating symptoms associated with anxiety are on the rise. Another particular area of concern that has become more common is the rise of suicidal ideation among students. Dr. Hamer revealed some rather eye-opening statistics to support this claim. In the last 12 months, 10% of students seriously considered committing suicide, while 50 % of college students reported having experienced suicidal ideation in their life. Dr. Hamer announced that, at Saint Rose, there are an alarming amount of students with serious issues related to mental health, including a significant number who struggle or have struggled with thoughts of self-harm or at risk behaviors. Dr. Hamer believes Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a valuable resource in striving to alleviate these problems. He also reflected that the process from feeling suicidal to acting on it appears to be significantly more abrupt than it used to be. Within DBT, the students learn skills to help them cope better with emotional disorders. Dr. Hamer concluded by stating what he believed to be the two effective solutions to reducing suicidal ideation. Firstly, to ensure that the students are receiving counselling treatment; students are far less likely to take any drastic steps when they are in counselling. The second solution is to, however possible, remove the means or opportunities for students to make an attempt. This could include taking away any potential weapons or placing the students in a safer environment.
Dennis McDonald was next up to present, and he started by detailing the inner workings of the Behavioural Assessment Team (BAT). McDonald explained that the BAT, which was started in 2006, dealt with a wide range of student issues. One of its main objectives is to “Increase the identification of students whose behavior are distressed, disruptive, or dysregulated.” McDonald stated that there is a meeting each week on Friday for the team to discuss certain students who may be in need of help. The team will identify students who may be causing a disruption at the college, try to find out the cause of the disruption, and discuss the steps needed to best address the problem. McDonald explained that the BAT are essentially tasked with finding the root cause of the behaviour and implementing an appropriate intervention. According to McDonald, a significant issue regularly faced by BAT is students’ lack of class attendance. For each case, the team collaborates with the appropriate faculty to see how the student in question is doing in other classes and in their residential life. McDonald made the case for early intervention. By helping the students and attempting to solve problems as early on as possible, the hope is that it will not grow into something potentially more problematic. McDonald also took the time to dispel the misconception that faculty are not permitted to air their concerns about students with their colleagues. If you are worried about a student, it is perfectly acceptable to share your concern and ask the opinion of a colleague. McDonald concluded by stating that in situations where students are acting in disruptive ways that go beyond the point of classroom management, the services and support exist to help faculty deal with such students.
Megan Fulwiler was last to present. Dr. Fulwiler shared her experiences about the role that writing can play in student behavior problems. Dr. Fulwiler began with a story about a young man in one of her colleague’s classes several years ago. The student was unpredictable, disrespectful, disruptive, and posed a threat to the safe environment of her writing class. After much conversation between Dr. Fulwiler and her colleague, it was decided that the best solution was to contact someone (Dr. Hamer) who would know exactly how to help. Dr. Fulwiler suggested several solutions to deal with a scenario of this variety. One of which pertained to early intervention: it is so important for faculty to share their problem or negative experience as soon as it happens. She also recommended initiating one on one conversation with the student, with the intention of finding the cause of the problem as early as possible. As was the solution in this case, Dr. Fulwiler recommended contacting someone who can help, such as Dr. Hamer or the BAT. Inspired by Michelle Payne’s book on “When Students Write about Abuse and Eating Disorder”, Dr. Fulwiler has been able to make the connection between writing and student behavior. Personal writing, especially, is a major tool in identifying potential student concerns and issues. Sometime there is evidence of a pattern emerging in writing. There can perhaps be consistent themes of violence or depression. Dr. Fulwiler explained that it is important to find out their purpose and inspiration. Is it merely creative or does it have personal relevance? Dr. Fulwiler gave an example of a former student who, for an autobiographical exercise, chose to write about her abusive relationship with her former boyfriend. The students in the class were using online blogs to share, explore, and connect their topic. Dr. Fulwiler’s student confided in Megan that her boyfriend had managed to find her blog, which stirred up a lot of problems. The young man’s parents even tried to sue the college for defamation of character despite the absence of any identifying features in the blog. Despite this, the student maintained her blog, which was a therapeutic and helpful process. Dr. Fulwiler concluded by stating that when working with student writing, we also work with student’s lives. It is important for them to have a space to do that, and for faculty to be there to help.
The floor was then opened up for questions. These were some of the points and observations that were made:
- Faculty should err on the side of caution when referring students to the counselling center – If there are any concerns about a student, seeking help should be recommended.
- The creation of an online forum available to help faculty in matters of student mental health would be greatly beneficial.
- Decreasing the stigma around mental health would help students to seek help more readily.
- It is crucial that students are teachers alike are both aware of the resources available to them.
- It is important that teachers have the support of the college when dealing with potentially dangerous or threatening students.
Lastly, these are a few links and handouts relevant to the discussion:
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/02/05/incoming-students-emotional-health-all-time-low-survey-says & https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/theory-knowledge/201402/the-college-student-mental-health-crisis