On March 22, a committee made up of faculty, staff and undergraduate and graduate students released a plan detailing actionable recommendations for how Vanderbilt should enhance mental health and wellbeing through education, research and services, as well as reduce stigma for those seeking support.
The committee was formed by Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos in the fall of 2016 to assess the current state of mental health resources and programs on campus, and to develop a plan to improve these efforts over the next five to ten years. Over the past year and a half, they have gathered feedback and input through numerous town halls, listening sessions, a suggestion box and campus surveys in order to develop a report that address their charge.
The Hustler broke down the recommendations into 11 main points that the committee wishes for the university to address.
1Accessibility of the PCC/UCC
The committee reported that the most consistent feedback they received was that the quality of care at the PCC was excellent, but its location and hours make it difficult to access. Their recommendations include extending hours, adding satellite locations and starting an after-hours non-emergency mental health distress service. Furthermore, the university should work to increase the number of off-campus providers that take the Student Health Insurance Plan, and provide transportation options for accessing them.
2Hiring new providers
This goes beyond the constant shortage of mental health providers in general. With the population at Vanderbilt continuing to become increasingly diverse, there is a need to have providers who are similar to or culturally competent in the needs of the people they are serving. Other new hires should include a wellness ombudsperson, as well as a Chief Wellness Officer (similar to the Chief Diversity Officer) who would be responsible for overseeing the implementation of the entire plan.
A new website that would be customizable to fit each user’s needs would make available resources more well known and more navigable. In addition expanding online presence could open the door to new ways to access services, such as mobile apps and video chat.
4Student of Concern form
The committee found that many members of the Vanderbilt community are unaware of this form, used to report concerns about any student in relation to their personal, physical, or emotional wellbeing. They recommend that Vanderbilt promote the use of this form, as well as expand it to include concerns about any member of the Vanderbilt community – faculty, staff and students. Case managers should also be hired to follow up with individuals of concern, as research shows that follow-ups are effective and essential in preventing future crises.
5Reduction of stigma
A large part of creating a campus culture that supports mental wellbeing is getting rid of the stigma surrounding mental health and seeking support. The committee recommends that the first step in this process is to develop measurements of the stigma on campus to assess what stigma exists now and the impact of stigma-reduction initiatives over time. The university then needs to conduct specific assessments of which types of messages will be effective in the Vanderbilt community. This may need to include consulting with communications firms who have expertise in identifying these sorts of messages. Some specific areas the committee emphasizes include the need to address the the current tension between the pressure to perform academically and to fit the “happiest students” label, as well as providing students who have successfully faced mental health challenges with a forum to share their experiences.
6Orientations and trainings
Stigma reduction messaging and resource awareness will most productively be conveyed when presented to students, faculty and staff both at their entrance into the Vanderbilt community, and as sustained reminders and updates throughout their time as member of the community. For faculty and staff, orientation should include sensitivity training on mental health, wellbeing, and diversity. Furthermore, a specialized orientation should be provided for international students, who have specific needs in dealing with cultural differences, adjusting and adapting not experienced by those those students already acclimated to American society.
7Affinity groups for faculty and staff
The committee points to research that shows that having support from other people who have similar life experiences enhances mental health and wellbeing. Like students, faculty and staff should have a formal mechanism to organize such groups.
In the same vein as Stress Fest and Final Exam activities at the Rec Center, the committee encourages the university to establish strategically placed stress-free areas on campus that include relaxation pods and games, as well as introducing pet therapy for students.
9Evaluation of progress
In the spirit of transparency, a separate team should be established to collaborate with the implementation team in order to conduct ongoing evaluations of progress and publish findings to the community, possibly through an annual report card.
10Mental health research
While centers are being founded around the country that focus on either mental illness or mental health, Vanderbilt should establish an Institute of Mental Health and Wellbeing (IMHWB) that will integrate neuroscience and molecular/cellular system-based research with social and behavioral sciences and the humanities to encompass mental health, mental illness and wellbeing. The IMHWB should foster collaborative and trans-institutional research with the other existing Vanderbilt research centers in order to launch a neurodiversity initiative that will educate, raise awareness and reduce stigma.
Vanderbilt should recognize the deep and complex connection between physical, mental and spiritual health, and in doing so should work to integrate the PCC/UCC with the Student Health Center and the Center for Student Wellbeing, optimally through the relocation of the PCC to directly combine all health services. On a much larger, long-term scale, all health resources and services should be centralized into a comprehensive “wellness hub”. This area or space would include 24-hour access and would aggregate the SHC, PCC/UCC, CSW, EAP, HR, VUPD, Project Safe, OUCRL and VRS, among others. Satellite services should still be offered as well.
Vanderbilt has yet to develop an implementation team for the recommendations listed here and the others included in the full plan. However, the university has already begun to address the need to provide an integrated network of care through the newly created Office of Student Care Coordination. Operating under the Office of the Dean of Students, the Office of Student Care Coordination will collaborate with the new University Counseling Center, both of which will open in the summer of 2018.
photos by Claire Barnett