Our next Final Question post comes from Paul Jacobson-Miller who shared his FQ, “Will we ever get to a point where we include mental wellness needs of a floor during their floor norms/expectations discussion?” during our 10/25 #SAChat on Students with Mental Health Concerns.
We already talk about many other floor norms, expectations and community standards with our students. I have seen residents confront each other on drinking habits, potentially unsafe sexual behaviors, not going to class or not studying and other easily observed concerns. However, once we enter the realm of the mind where things are more difficult to pinpoint, understand or observe we take a step back despite our gut telling us something is amiss. I not only believe that we can get to a place where mental health is included in a conversation of floor norms and expectations; I believe that we must get there. Floor members and our student staff are more aware of the community needs than we ever will be. If we are going to make a difference in the culture we need to work where we can have the biggest impact. So the question then becomes what we need to do to get there.
Knowing that it would be difficult to simply open up a conversation about mental health and expect it to go well we need to address the following areas one by one:
- Assessing and exploring our own comfort with mental health as professional staff.
- Defining and explaining why we want to talk about mental health.
- Training our student-staff and building comfort with discussing mental health.
- Normalizing mental wellness towards getting rid of the stigma associated with getting help.
- Designing a process for the conversation during the floor meetings.
- Systemizing times, topics, tactics and processes for revisiting mental wellness.
1. Assessing and exploring our own comfort with mental health as professional staff.
As a profession our knowledge base and capacity around mental health is as varied as our campuses are. If we ourselves are nervous about certain areas to the level that we cannot speak about them, then how can we expect our staff to discuss them at floor meetings? We cannot expect Residential Life staff to counsel students on serious issues, that is why we have Counseling Centers on campus. What I do expect is that we can openly discuss major concerns and mental health in general.
Once we identify areas we need to delve deeper into, we can set an agenda for meetings with counseling center staff. Those meetings will serve two purposes: to deepen our understanding of mental health and to develop relationships between professional staff and counseling center staff. The relationships that we build with our Counseling Centers will be key for later steps by starting/strengthening a partnership.
Two great books for professional staff on mental health and counseling work that I find useful are:
- College Student Mental Health: Effective Services and Strategies Across Campus; Edited by Sherry A. Benton & Stephen L. Benton; 2006 (available through the NASPA store)
- More Than Listening: A Casebook for Using Counseling Skills in Student Affairs Work; Ruth Harper, Nona L. Wilson, and Associates, 2010 (available through the NASPA store)
2. Define and explain why we want to talk about mental health.
Over the past few years we have seen an 85% increase in reports of students with serious mental health problems (Gallagher, Gill, & Sysco, 2000). Ten years ago a survey from the American College Health Association discovered some alarming statistics reported by students about their experience over the course of one academic year: 9.5% of students seriously considered suicide, 37.6% experienced multiple instances of feeling so depressed they could not function, and 54.6 % felt hopeless (Benton & Benton, 2006). If we compare those numbers to what was reported to college officials and counseling centers that same year, my hunch is that there would be a large discrepancy. These feelings are out there and we cannot always be there when we are most needed. We need to empower our communities to watch out for their neighbors in new ways, not to counsel them but to let them know they care, have noticed a difference, and want to refer them to help. We want our students to feel more comfortable talking about mental health, and seeking the help they need. The ‘why’ is because we care, and because it is a real concern where time is of the essence. This requires some serious conversations between Residential Life Pro-Staff, and then broader Student Affairs staff including the counseling center. Jump in and have those conversations. Allocate the time they need to truly make progress, and make it a layered conversation; the one-and-done meetings will not work to get everyone where they need to be.
3. Train our staff and build comfort with discussing mental health.
The difficulty in talking to our student staff about mental health lies in balancing its importance while conveying a sense of urgency without making it too big of a deal. We cannot make it a scary thing to think or talk about it. We need to be comfortable talking about mental health ourselves and then take it a step further by showing them how to share appropriately. If we are able to talk about our own experiences in a way that demonstrates vulnerability without shame or discomfort then we give them permission to talk about it and ask questions. We begin to take it away from hushed tones and parking lot conversations and bring it into our daily dialogue.
We do have limited time during training and a lot of competing priorities, sessions and offices vying for time with Resident Assistants, but this is too complicated of an issue to cover in one session. Off the top of my head I think this may take three different sessions, some of which cover multiple topics. The point is to look at this as a layered approach in training on a topic that will come up throughout the year.
4. Normalizing mental wellness towards getting rid of the stigma associated with getting help.
One of the biggest barriers towards more effectively addressing mental health is the stigma of ‘mental health’. I believe reframing and renaming the discussion to be around mental wellness rather than mental health will go a long way towards getting over that stigma.
We all know that words matter. They convey more than just their definition; they can convey tone, importance, value and more. Changing our language from mental health to mental wellness will require more staff than just Residential Life and will require us to keep at it until the change takes hold. When we look at the idea of health versus wellness we see two different sets of behavior. We worry about our health when we are sick; it is a deficiency standpoint. We worry about our wellness in terms of what can we do to improve it; it is an upkeep and improvement standpoint. Ultimately we want our students to focus on improving their mental wellness and addressing it as life happens, not once life gets them down. There are inevitable ups-and-downs, challenges and moments of crisis in the student development path and we need to talk about mental wellness with this in mind.
Additionally when we re-frame to mental wellness it opens us up to new ways of identifying needs. We can easily see when someone seems under the weather and needs to take it easy and we mention it. There is no stigma saying that someone should go to the health center for that nasty cough. With mental wellness and the upkeep mentality it makes it easier to intervene and point out when someone can improve their mental wellness. It will be much easier to mention something to someone who is stressed out or struggling with a bad break-up if we approach it from a wellness perspective rather than a mental health perspective. With mental health I see a pattern of needing/wanting to diagnose someone before they comfortable stepping in or mentioning anything. With mental wellness it will be more comfortable telling someone how the Counseling Center can help with whatever is going on.
5. Designing a process for the conversation during floor meetings
As stated earlier we cannot expect our student-staff to take an outline and be successful; neither can we just prepare them around the topic without resources to guide them through the conversation. This should be built into the tools that you already have for setting floor norms and expectations. If you are still developing a guide/process for setting floor norms and expectations there are many great resources out there. Two that I find particularly helpful are:
- The Iris Center’s Case Study Unit on Norms and Expectations.
- University of Oregon’s Residence Hall Community Agreement Discussion Guide.
The only advice I will give for this area is when training staff, you should go through the process as well. Don’t just explain it but walk them through it step by step having them go through the activity. This is an area where they need to be well prepared, and from personal experience I know that just talking through it does not convey it well enough.
6. Systemizing times, topics, tactics and processes for revisiting mental wellness
As the old adage says “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime”. Over the last few years this has taken on an additional meaning for me. We need to focus our efforts on teaching students rather than providing for them, and we need to focus on systems rather than individual initiatives. If we do something once, it happens once (giving a man a fish). When we systemize something so it naturally comes back around, then it becomes a part of our culture (teaching a man to fish). This can be accomplished with staff by adding into every 1-1 a question about the floor’s mental wellness, or bringing in someone from the counseling center each month to talk to staff about a different topic. The point is that it is reoccurring, and there is a system or process in place to keep the discussion going.
We can make great strides and develop an amazing process but if we rely on one person to bring it back up without a system in place it is easy for it to be a one-hit-wonder. We need to plan ahead on what we will revisit, how we will revisit and when we will revisit the issue. This should be set up beforehand — build it into bulletin board suggestions, or add mental wellness into our programming models by listing specific topics we want to revisit. However your campus and department work, building this into your process and systemizing will ensure it won’t go away when any one person leaves.
In the end this final question was anything but final. It brought up many more questions and ideas for me. Going forward I was happy to be asked to write about it because we have so many great ideas that sometimes we flounder to get them off the ground and we just need a starting point. I would love to keep the conversation going through comments, emails and any other means.