The conference theme this year was “Community College of the Overwhelmed: Best Practices for Assisting Students in Need,” and the keynote speaker was Dr. Gregory Eells, Director of Counseling and Psychology Services at Cornell University. Dr. Eells’ address, which spun off his TEDx Cortland talk on Cultivating Resilience, began with an engaging dialogue about what mental illness looks like on campus. He reminded us that mental disorders are on a continuum, some chronic and some manifesting only as brief episodes.
During his session “Creating a Caring Campus Community: A Comprehensive Approach to Mental Health,” Dr. Eells graciously shared Cornell University’s Mental Health Framework for a Caring Community. Their comprehensive approach to mental health promotion and suicide prevention is outlined as follows:
- Foster a healthy educational environment
- Promote life skills & resilience
- Increase help-seeking behaviors
- Identify people in need of care
- Provide mental and medical health services
- Deliver coordinated crisis management
- Restrict access to means of suicide
One hot topic at my institution right now, as well as across higher education, is resiliency.
Dr. Eell’s defined Resilience as:
- Good outcomes despite high-risk status
- Competence under pressure
- Recovery from trauma
- Using challenges for growth that makes future hardships more manageable
He also shared his approach on how to promote resilience in students using the acronym SAVES:
- S – Social Connection – is protective against mental illness; biologically, isolation is toxic to the human nervous system.
- A – Attitude – is learned optimism; growth mindset vs. fixed mindset.
- V – Values – is finding meaning and purpose
- E – Emotional Acceptance – is actively embracing what’s going on inside
- S – Silliness – is maintaining a sense of humor and laughter
In reflecting on his session and the whole day, I found myself thinking hard about the variety of issues that overwhelm my students. Basic needs like access to healthy food, reliable transportation, and affordable childcare are on the top of the list for many as barriers to their continued education. I realize it’s not up to me to fix those barriers for my students, increasing their help-seeking behaviors by connecting them to resources on campus and in the community is.
I find even my student leaders are not immune to being overwhelmed, and I led a round table at the end of the conference day on this very topic. Another speaker from Monroe Community College put it well when she said sometimes we need to ask our student leaders to gracefully exit a position when it becomes clear they can no longer meet expectations of a student leadership or student employment position. This may be because they over-committed themselves or factors out of their control have changed their circumstances. Another participant from Jefferson Community College quoted the altruism “jack of all, master of none,” when we discussed how overwhelmed student leaders often find they cannot excel at everything. I believe it is our job as student affairs professionals, whether we serve as their advisor or supervisor, to coach them in developing life skills and resilience to cope with their disappointments, challenges, or life changes. As Dr. Eell’s acronym suggests, promoting resiliency in our students SAVES them.
Sidenote: I’m curious if any other states have models where community colleges come together for collective training like the Community College Institute I attended as a member of the State University of New York (SUNY). Please comment below.