By SHANNON O. WELLS
Providing Pitt students with resources they need for optimal learning as well as maintaining mental and emotional well-being may take a village, as the saying goes, but specialists at the University Counseling Center strive to give faculty and staff as much freedom as possible to focus on their primary roles.
“Student well-being and mental health is a shared responsibility,” said Ahmed Ghuman, executive director of the Counseling Center. “Faculty and staff are in a unique position to both proactively create a supportive environment and respond when they recognize a student might be struggling. However, we don’t set any expectation that faculty and staff act as therapists. Instead, we focus on how they can support students within their role and review resources they can help students connect with if needed.”
To that end, the center’s Mental Health Champion Certificate Program is designed to provide knowledge, awareness and skills to staff and faculty to support the emotional well-being of Pitt’s diverse student body — and in the process become “champions” of mental health on the Pitt campus.
Among 14 projects to receive funding as part of Pitt’s Year of Emotional Well-Being, the virtual training program — first offered during the fall 2021 semester — provides an opportunity to learn how to support students experiencing mental health concerns, help increase student well-being and promote human flourishing. It also explores the promotion of culturally responsive care on campus, said Bernadette Smith, the counseling center’s associate director of outreach.
To earn a "Mental Health Champion" certificate, participants must complete, at their own pace, the program's three modules in sequential order, including:
Supporting Student Mental Health and Responding to Crisis
Promoting Culturally Responsive Care on Campus:
Increasing Student Well-Being and Promoting Flourishing
The first cohort of the program is going on now, and those who complete it will be invited to a Capstone Celebration on April 11. Registration for the spring 2023 training is closed, but training will be offered each semester. Future training sessions will be posted on the Counseling Center website.
For the training, counseling specialists will discuss methods to enhance and maintain overall well-being, how to identify and support a student who is in distress and might benefit from counseling services, crisis-related concerns, providing care and support in a culturally responsive manner, and an overview of resources available to students.
The course also seeks to create a “network of champions to enhance knowledge, resources and potential collaborations across departments,” Ghuman noted, while helping staff and faculty “develop cultural humility in their work with students.”
“One of the most important things faculty and staff can do is establish and nurture caring and empathic relationships with students. This will allow them to gain a better understanding of how to provide ongoing support within their role,” he said. “In general, we encourage folks to reach out and check-in if they notice something is different with a student.
Establishing a sense of trust, communication and empathy is a primary goal of the program, Smith noted.
“We all have ups and downs, or ‘off’ days. Even if someone might not need to connect with professional support, it can be meaningful to have a faculty and/or staff reach out and share that they care,” she said. “It can be proactive in a sense, too, as students are more likely to be feel safe reaching out to that person in the future if more support is needed.”
The concept of the certificate program goes back to the summer 2021 term, when — still in the midst of the initial COVID pandemic — Counseling Center specialists pondered how to help members of the Pitt community feel more competent, and therefore empowered, to create a community of care that’s accessible to all students.
“Feeling connected to a community and having supportive relationships are positive contributors to well-being and mental health,” Smith said. “Some of the more traditional counseling services offered at the UCC can support an individual in connecting with a community and developing relationships, but there must first be a supportive community with caring individuals with whom students feel safe to connect.
“So, as we developed this program, we focused on providing staff, faculty and students the knowledge, awareness and skills to actively support the well-being of our diverse student body.”
The counseling center shared statistics that show how each year in the United States, approximately 1,100 college students — ages 18 to 24 — die by suicide, and roughly 24,000 college students report a suicide attempt.
Student well-being also has a major impact on retention and persistence, with an estimated 3 to 5 percent of college students withdrawing because of mental health-related concerns. Positive contributors to well-being and mental health include supportive relationships with care providers, access to physical and mental health care and connection to community support, Ghuman said.
While the certificate program is currently only offered to faculty and staff, the counseling center is developing an asynchronous version of the training that’s tailored for students, part of the Outside the Classroom Curriculum (OCC), in which students can earn a digital mental health badge.
“When we think about community support and connection, we recognize the power of peer-to-peer support,” Ghuman said. “We hope this new version of the training can provide students with the skills and confidence to advocate and champion well-being and mental health for themselves and their peers. We hope to share more information about the student-facing program by the end of the semester.”
Although stress, depression and anxiety are universal conditions, the typical age of university students and the environment they find themselves in create a particularly fertile ground for emotional and well-being challenges.
“Stress is an inevitable part of life, and it is important to recognize that students have unique experiences that can contribute to overall stress,” Smith said. “By creating a community of mental health champions, we can ensure that students are being supported by faculty and staff across campus.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.