It Takes a Village: Academic Affairs and Student Affairs Partnering to Promote Student Mental Health

by Deanne Hurley and Dr. Kathy LaFontana

Illustration tending to mental health

MR Chalee/Shutterstock

Mental health plays a critical role in student success, a fact that has become increasingly salient in recent years, with pandemic-related social unrest and economic turmoil creating major challenges to students’ sense of well-being. In higher education, we have long known that many reasons why students do not succeed have little to do with academic ability and much more to do with life getting in the way. For all students, but especially those at a higher risk of dropping out (first generation, Pell-eligible), these non-academic obstacles have led to sharp increases in rates of mental illness and decreases in retention and persistence.

At Ursuline College, a small private, religious institution in the suburbs of Cleveland, faculty and staff from academic affairs and student affairs have had to address these challenges during the pandemic, which has led to a strengthened collaborative partnership. There were three phases to this partnership: our immediate crisis-management response to the pandemic, a longer-term holistic approach that integrates academic and student affairs in providing personal attention and support to students, and the establishment of structures and resources to promote ongoing mental health. We share with you our lessons learned and strategies for the future.

The student population at Ursuline College is distinctive in several ways. With around one thousand students, we are approximately 60% undergraduate and 40% graduate, and 92.5% of our student population is female. We have a racially diverse student population (57% White, 26% Black, 1% Hispanic, 3% Asian, 7% two or more races, 4% unknown, 2% non-resident alien), and 46% of our students are Pell-eligible while 45% are first generation. Approximately 88% of our students come from within the state of Ohio, and 85% of the combined graduate and undergraduate student population are commuters.

When the pandemic first hit in the Spring of 2020, our priority was to ensure that students had the resources they needed to be able to continue their education. Academic affairs faculty and staff reached out to each student to learn what technology resources they had available to them, and student affairs staff contacted each student individually to check on their circumstances to see if anything prevented them from being able to continue with their studies and attempted to address those challenges.

Over the next few semesters, we placed priority on engaging students as much as possible. A COVID-19 Task Force composed of faculty, staff, and administrators determined how we could return to face-to-face education as quickly and safely as possible. Removal of some classroom furniture allowed social distancing, classroom technology improvements enabled students in quarantine or isolation to attend class remotely, and strict masking and cleaning protocols resulted in no cases of COVID-19 transmission traced to classroom interactions. In the residence halls, athletics and residence life staff created “Q-Kits” for students in quarantine and isolation, containing bags of snacks, puzzle books, pens, and lotion. Staff also created a version of Door Dash with menus of fruit, snacks, and puzzle books that students in quarantine and isolation could request from the RA on duty.

Success in partnering on these short-term measures prompted academic and student affairs to work more collaboratively to promote overall student retention and persistence. Our mission statement says that we offer a “holistic education that transforms students for service, leadership, and professional excellence.” This focus on the whole person permeates our curriculum, our interactions with students, and all aspects of campus life. However, the pandemic forced us to be even better about attending to the whole student as we worked together to foster student success and build resilience in our students.

As an example, our Early Alert System collects information from faculty about student academic difficulties. In the last few years, we have expanded the scope of the system to include alerts from staff (coaches, librarians, student affairs personnel) and to include behavioral, financial, and personal concerns that faculty and staff have noticed, heard, or read about. in student work. Our CARES Team (Campus Awareness, Response, and Evaluation of Students) is a resource to aid faculty and staff when behavior or actions by a student may cause them to be concerned, alarmed, or afraid and unsure about what to do or what action to take. During COVID, we saw a 40% increase in referrals to the team. Our counseling numbers increased over these two years with a 51% increase in counseling appointments the first year and a 12% increase the following year with an 18% increase in clients. Consultations for faculty and staff concerned about students increased 48%.

Because of our focus on holistic wellness, we provide support for our students by sharing effective strategies and coping skills to help build resilience. We intensified this support to address the challenges to student engagement and relationship-building resulting from masking and social distancing. The offices of counseling services, campus ministry, diversity, international students, residence life, disability services, athletics, and the women’s center provided programming and discussions under the umbrella of “Wellness: Creating Your Best Self.” Programs were a mix of virtual, in-person, and hybrid (which allowed for those students in quarantine and isolation to participate) and included topics such as the link between burnout and boundaries; the effects of labels and terminology on one’s sense of belonging; women, food, and God; COVID and the impact on work-life balance; healthy habits during changing times; and virtual yoga and meditation. We utilized resources on campus, including faculty (especially those from our counseling and art therapy department), alums, and staff (including the director of our Metz Food Service to talk about healthy eating). The Women’s Center also offers Wellness Check-up Appointments for students, faculty, and staff.

As a result of our successes in collaboration, we have made several changes going forward. One of the positive outcomes of COVID-19 has been the normalizing of the anxiety and stress people are experiencing and the willingness of people to openly discuss mental health, wellness, and work-life balance. Our counseling staff now routinely goes into classrooms and attends meetings to talk about stress and anxiety and to share resources. Students have started a Mental Health Club and chose the name of the club intentionally to remove the stigma attached to mental health concerns and focus on support and education.

During the height of the pandemic, student affairs hired a social work intern with oversight from our social work department to assist us with contact tracing and follow-up for those students in quarantine and isolation, especially commuters. We are now investigating the possibility (perhaps with grant funding) of hiring academic and student success coaches with a background in case management to assist students.

We are also collaborating to systematize our collection and analysis of data related to student success. We have developed an overall process to assess institutional effectiveness that involves staff from all areas of the college, and we have a Retention Committee that focuses specifically on the effectiveness of the strategies described above. We are also providing faculty and staff development so that everyone can play a role in supporting student mental health. The National Council for Mental Wellbeing offers a course on Adult Mental Health First Aid, and we have had sixty faculty, staff, and students go through training from this organization.

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