Increased reports of mental health issues spark University response

University officials responded to students’ grievances of lacking support and long appointment wait times at the Wellness Center in University Crossing. (Andre Ragel / Connector)

Jessica Kergo
Connector Staff

The UMass Lowell Wellness Center is currently struggling to meet all of students’ needs. “I think a lot of what we’re lacking right now is budget resources,” said Jacquie Keeves, a mental health counselor at the UMass Lowell Wellness Center. “There are way more students trying to access services to the point where we can’t keep up and the issues that students are reporting are much more severe.”

Prompted by the aggregate of these stories, the school has been taking strides towards improving resources to address an increasing prevalence of mental health issues throughout the campus, according to students and faculty, including adding more professional counselors and adding peer-to-peer counselors as well. But counselors say that more resources are needed to help what seems to be a growing population of help seekers.

“It was really the student body who brought it to our attention,” said Undergraduate President Andre DiFilippo, who has been a member of Student Government Association since his freshman year of college.

He referenced a university wide success survey that took place last fall. In addition to a wide range of success measures, the survey included a wellness component that tried to gauge students’ feelings surrounding stress, depression and anxiety. DiFilippo said that an unexpectedly high number of students reported feeling lonely and disconnected.

The survey prompted the university to make changes to mental health resources on campus.  “We’ve completely changed how we provide counseling services,” Keeves said.

In previous years, students would have to call and make appointments with counselors and have to wait up to four weeks for an appointment. “Now we have eight, 30-minute triage appointments in a day,” she said.

According to Keeves, the triage appointments allow counselors to give students same day care, instead of having them wait to address mental health issues. Keeves said that what makes UMass Lowell’s approach to mental health issues especially unique to other schools is its inclusion of peer to peer outreach.

Campus Advocates for Prevention Education or CAPE is a peer education group under the Office of Student Affairs made up of student advocates who are trained in discussing topics like suicide and mental illness to spread awareness. The students go through a series of training at the beginning of each semester to equip them to communicate with their peers about mental health, suicide and sexual violence prevention and resources on campus.

CAPE hosts tables, gives classroom and student organization presentations about suicide and sexual violence prevention, and educates their peers about bystander intervention.

“There’s a lot of research that shows the effectiveness of peer education,” says Marina Novaes, a senior public health major who has been a member of CAPE for the past six semesters.

There is a special significance to having peer-based resources for students, Novaes said. “Some students feel more comfortable talking to students instead of faculty,”.

She also noted the importance of breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health discussions. “The fact that people can see other students care about these topics breaks the stigma that it’s somehow uncool to talk about these topics,” Novaes said

According to Novaes, nation-wide reports of suicidal ideation have increased in recent years among college aged students. This, coupled with an increased awareness of counseling services on campus leaves the prevention advocate with concerns over the university’s ability to handle the growing number of students who are opting to seek help for mental health issues.

One way the university is working to address this issue is by making mental health awareness an ongoing effort and not simply an event in the background. “What we’re trying to do is start thinking about this in a wholistic way,” said Nicole Champagne, chair of the public health department and the person in charge of UMass Lowell’s new mindfulness and wellness initiative.

Champagne thinks that education and outreach surrounding mental health resources needs to be more of a habit and less of an event. To realize this goal, this past summer, the university has partnered with the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that works to protect emotional health and prevent suicide.

This partnership includes a survey analysis of the students’ mental wellbeing and a self-survey to assess how the school is handling it. Then, the school will work with the Jed foundation to create a strategic plan to address the school’s weaknesses.

Champagne wants to approach the issue from a public health perspective, suggesting that the administration start looking at how they can prevent students from reaching a crisis point and promoting problem solving skills that can help students face their mental health issues.

“These are issues that are so common but sometimes we just don’t feel like we can share that part of what’s going on,” Champagne said.

President DiFilippo said he appreciated Chancellor Maloney and other members of the administration’s willingness to work with students to improve the issues they are experiencing with the University’s resources.

“At other UMass schools, there’s nowhere near the same level of collaboration,” he said.

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