A key component of George Mason University’s return to campus this month is addressing the mental health of students and employees and providing additional resources for those who might feel anxious about coming to campus or who are struggling to deal with the ongoing pandemic.
Inside Higher Ed reported this week that Indiana University’s Beginning College Survey of Student Engagement, which included responses from more than 35,000 students nationally, found that 53% of first-year students reported “a substantial increase in mental and emotional exhaustion.”
There are similar concerns with returning students who might have mental health needs to address when they return to campus.
“Like counseling centers at many universities across the country, Mason’s Counseling and Psychological Services did not hear from all students who needed support,” said Rachel Wernicke, University Life associate dean and chief mental health officer. “Some students sought services in their local communities. But as students return to campus, Mason anticipates much greater demand for student mental health services.”
Now students must confront several challenges, she said, including transitioning to the next phase of normal and further comprehending the experiences of the past 18 months.
“Many of our faculty, staff and students have experienced trauma, loss, isolation and loneliness,” Wernicke said. “And some will need support as they process their responses to the last year, and transition back to campus.”
The return to campus will enable students to reconnect with peers. That sense of rejuvenation can facilitate healing. The same goes for faculty and staff as they rejoin their colleagues in person.
“It can be very helpful when students who are ready are open with their peers about their mental health concerns,” Wernicke said. “When students talk about their mental health authentically, they help to reduce stigma and to create accepting spaces for other students to share their experiences.”
Students can receive training to identify and support fellow students in distress through the Mason CARES (Campus Awareness, Referral, and Education for Suicide Prevention) program. Mason’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being also offers resources, including how faculty can support students’ mental health. A new Mason guide will cover student mental health strategies for faculty and staff, among them trying to make personal connections with students and offering flexibility and compassion as students re-enter the academic space.
“As a community grounded in compassion, kindness, and support, intensifying our focus and our commitment to overall mental health and well-being is a must,” said Rose Pascarell, vice president for University Life.
Additional mental health resources also are available for employees. The university will provide a licensed Employee Assistance Program (EAP) counselor to meet individually, by appointment, with Mason faculty and staff for virtual support sessions. The sessions are between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on August 25 and September 8. Employees can register online. These free, half-hour sessions will give employees the opportunity to address feelings that might be challenging and to learn coping strategies.
“The university strives to support all dimensions of employee well-being, especially while most faculty and staff members transition to working on campus again,” said Lester Arnold, vice president for Human Resources and Payroll. “One dimension we’ve always focused on, but are especially aware of during this time, is employee mental health. Faculty and staff may be experiencing higher levels of change and uncertainty in the midst of returning to campus and/or the start of the academic year.”
There are many university well-being initiatives that also address the mental health of the campus community. One is the yearlong Patriots Thriving Together campaign organized by the Office of the Provost, University Life and the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. The campaign will focus on many aspects of well-being, including mental health, as will the weekly Thriving Together Series and the Resilience Badge, which is open to students, faculty and staff.
In addition, the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being offers Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training, an eight-hour program for students, faculty and staff that provides information about the signs and symptoms of common mental illnesses and how to engage in conversation with those who might be struggling to encourage them to seek professional care.
The training sessions, facilitated by Katie Clare, associate director for resilience programs in University Life, and Patrice Levinson, nurse practitioner in Student Health Services, are scheduled for 1 to 5 p.m. Oct. 26 and Nov. 2 in person, and 1 to 5 p.m. Dec. 6-7 online. Mason also offers a one-credit MHFA UNIV 370 course.