Recent national headlines — from stories about the declining mental health of college students to suicides of several high-profile college athletes — bring into stark relief the challenges universities are facing.
“Our students are a microcosm of what is happening in the country at large, and our students are struggling,” says Stacey Pearson-Wharton, dean of health and wellness at Susquehanna and director of counseling and psychological services. “We are seeing a lack of self-efficacy among our students, as well as increased depression, anxiety and social anxiety.”
While these problems were on the rise prior to the Covid pandemic, its onset and prolonged lifespan — combined with heightened political divisions — have exacerbated the issues many students were already facing.
Dena Salerno, senior director of inclusion and diversity, has seen the impact on Susquehanna’s students from underrepresented groups. “At the same time a global pandemic was happening, the U.S. also was going through a racial reckoning.
Our students came through it, but you can’t ignore that,” Salerno says. “And all of those things that our students from underrepresented groups experience every day before the pandemic are ongoing during and after the pandemic.”
“It is noteworthy that at the height of the pandemic — fall 2020 and spring 2021 — our student scores on frustration/anger scales and the academic distress scale were higher than they have ever been,” Pearson-Wharton says. She adds that this past academic year, their scores returned to typical levels.
Concurrently, all student visits to CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services) have risen 58% over the past two years. CAPS saw 409 unique new clients in 2019–20. That rose to nearly 600 in 2021–22.
Susquehanna’s students’ struggles are not unique, as data from the 2021 Healthy Minds Study, produced by the nationwide network, shows 34% of U.S. college respondents struggle with anxiety disorder and 41% with depression — rates that have risen in recent years.
MORE SERVICES … FASTER
In facing these increasing needs, Susquehanna dedicated significant financial resources toward supporting the mental health care of its students.
Former part-time staff are now full-time employees, nearly doubling available office hours with licensed professional therapists. With the addition of a new external partner, CAPS also can connect students to one-on-one virtual appointments from wherever students are, anytime throughout the year. Residential and commuter students can connect in this way, and students who are on a study-away experience can see a therapist in person or through telehealth without worry of international calling charges, in-person co-pays or insurance.
The way in which a student first meets with a therapist also has sped up. Whether they call for an appointment or drop in, their needs are assessed during a 20-minute triage appointment. Together with the therapist, they build a plan to decide which type of service will help them best: individual, in-person or telehealth counseling, and/or group therapy. Students can also select which therapist they would like to see and usually have their first full session within a day or two. Students who are in crisis can be seen immediately.
FRAMEWORK OF CARE AND SUPPORT
Once a week, the university’s CARE (Concern, Assessment, Response, Evaluation) Team gathers around a table to evaluate and address students who may be displaying behaviors that interfere with their education or may reasonably pose a safety threat to themselves or others. Serving as a case management collaborative, they coordinate appropriate resources to intervene or make referrals to university or community services to provide necessary support.
Students in need of intervention pop onto the team’s radar via a CARE report, which sets support in motion that can help a student persist and go on to earn their degree from Susquehanna.
CARE reports can be made by any faculty or staff member, friend or peer who believes a student may be in need of assistance. The reports are triaged as they are received by CAPS, and some are marked as urgent.
Gina Bavero, assistant director of CAPS and member of the CARE Team, says, “There is no limit to what we are willing to do and what we have done to help a student. If a student is failing or hasn’t been to class, we do as much as we can to get that student back on track.”
CARE reports that do not require immediate actions are referred to the CARE Team, which is a model Pearson-Wharton says resulted from the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Susquehanna’s team, originally her and a few other members, has grown under Pearson-Wharton’s leadership to include 13 staff members from offices that support students: Center for Academic Success; the Center for Diversity and Inclusion; Admission; Athletics; Global Opportunities; Religious and Spiritual Life; Residence Life; Student Financial Services; Student Health; and Student Life.
Various CARE Team members say students are struggling with the isolation of the pandemic and how to negotiate a return to existence that is normal.
“We can’t overstate the impacts the pandemic has had and continues to have on our students,” Pearson-Wharton says. “We have students coming to us who haven’t experienced a normal school year or home environment for the past two years, so they’re scared and uncertain. Some of them have experienced the loss of a parent or close family member due to Covid, or their financial situations have changed because of Covid.”
Chaplain Scott Kershner, who joined the CARE Team at the pandemic’s start, agrees that students’ connection to others still remains concerning.
“I think there is an increased sense of students feeling socially isolated and not feeling connected to the larger community,” he says. “We continue to ask ourselves, ‘Are things going to bounce back?’ I haven’t seen the bounce back yet.”
Susquehanna’s CARE Team is unique from other university models in that it has representation from Student Financial Services in Director Katie Erdley.
“We know a lot about our students and their families, so it makes sense for us to be at the table to give some context to any problems a student may present,” Erdley says.
Each member of the CARE Team performs case management responsibilities. For Erdley, that might mean she is assigned as the lead for a student who is experiencing significant financial distress. Kershner also assists with financial issues through two donor-supported funds to address acute student needs — from medical emergencies or unforeseen travel to food insecurity.
“I make it known to students that these funds are available to them because there is a community of people extending themselves to support them,” Kershner says.
The imagery of arms wrapping around students comes up again and again among CARE Team members. As Erdley talks about her work with the team, she lights up. It’s clear she perceives her work on the team as much more than the team’s financial representative.
“When a student is brought to us, we put our arms around them and let them know that, ‘We hear you,’” Erdley says. She encourages everyone on campus to feel empowered to walk a student to the Counseling Center or to talk to them about the clubs they can join if a student looks lonely.
“We seek to include every facet of the university so we can wrap our arms around students to ensure not only that they don’t fall through the cracks, but also that they don’t find a crack and stay there,” Pearson-Wharton adds. “We tell them, ‘We got you.’”Return to top