An Update from Dr. Miller  

 

Students' mental health and wellness have been a constant focus for Student Affairs and we have been working on a number of mental health and wellness initiatives for many years. We have consistently worked to improve what we offer to students. However, we have seen unprecedented numbers of students in need as well as an increase in the severity of concerns over the last several years. This increase was occurring prior to the pandemic but the last two years have caused an even greater increase. 

Below is an overview of past, present and future mental health and wellness initiatives within Student Affairs. Student Affairs is just one of many divisions that contribute to mental health and wellness initiatives.  

Our Counseling Center Model 

JMU’s Counseling Center is typical of most university counseling centers across the country. In general, we are set up for short-term support as well as crisis management. Most students who come to JMU having already worked with a counselor are better served to maintain that existing relationship and support structure rather than trying to transition to someone in our Counseling Center. Students who need long-term and regular support who do not have a counselor at home are typically referred to an off-campus local provider.  

One of the complicating factors of our current environment is that access to Harrisonburg community mental health resources has become increasingly limited due to providers having full caseloads and not accepting students’ health insurance. This has been a trend for several years. It has continued to be a challenge when the number of students in need increased so drastically over the last couple of years.  

What We Have Done  

The Counseling Center and the Dean of Students office are the two primary offices that take on the support of students who are struggling with mental health. We have made several additions to staff and resources over the last three years.  

Counseling Center 

In the Counseling Center, we added three additional counselors in the summer of 2019 as part of our largest single budget initiative that year.

In 2020, we signed a contract with a 24-hour crisis line staffed by counselors to add this resource for the entire student body. Previously only on-campus students were able to access support after hours.  

In the summer of 2021, Victim Advocacy Services was moved to the Counseling Center, and the two Victim Advocates have been contributing a portion of their time to providing mental health services. Simultaneously, we transitioned two wage positions to positions with benefits to increase the strength of our candidate pool and fill the positions. In November of 2021, we saw a new wave of concerns in student mental health so we added three additional staff members for the Counseling Center including two counselors and one psychiatric nurse to support our psychiatry efforts. While this was outside of the regular budget cycle, the university’s leadership saw the importance of this funding priority and allocated the money to support this mid-year. We have also undergone two significant renovations in the Counseling Center in the last three years to make room for these additional staff members. 

Dean of Students 

The Dean of Students team works directly with students in crisis to guide them to the appropriate resources and help them make the best decision regarding their health and success at JMU. In 2018 the Dean of Students office consisted of two positions total. Over the last three years we have added five additional staff members to the team including a Graduate Assistant, Executive Assistant, Coordinator, Assistant Dean of Students, Associate Dean of Students and promoted the Assistant Dean to an Associate Dean. Despite these significant additions in staffing, this team is similarly overwhelmed with responding to student crises.  

We have also launched the Rebound program with support from two generous donors who are JMU parents. This program helps us to normalize struggle and challenge and guide students through rough patches at JMU. Rebound has already made a significant difference for several students, and we are glad it has helped them be successful after a challenge.   

Current Searches

We are in the process of hiring for the four newly created positions; three in the counseling center and one in the Dean of Students Office. These positions include: Senior Staff Clinician, Psychiatric Support Clinician, Resident position and the Associate Dean of Students. For more information, including position descriptions, please see joblink.jmu.edu.


What’s Next 

Suicide Risk Reduction Taskforce 

In the fall of 2021, I asked the Dean of Students to create and chair the Suicide Risk Reduction Taskforce (SRRT). This is a collaborative effort that includes representation from across the university and includes faculty, staff and students. Their charge was to identify a series of interventions to develop and implement at JMU and the first area of focus was identifying ways to deter individuals from harming themselves. They submitted their recommendations directly to senior leadership in January and we are working quickly to fund and act on them this semester. This team will continue to meet and make additional recommendations throughout this semester.  

Protocols 

We are continually examining our protocols related to the passing of a student. We are using the expertise of our colleagues on the Suicide Risk Reduction Team to guide that process. 

Telehealth 

We have been examining telehealth options that would serve our community. We know that many students prefer in-person counseling sessions, however, this is not always available. There are high-quality experiences for our students using telehealth resources. We are working collaboratively with Virginia Tech and Virginia Commonwealth University to put out a “Request for Proposals” and solicit companies that would like to provide this service to our community. We are looking for a service that will provide emergency counseling support, ongoing counseling sessions, psychiatry and medical telehealth options. We believe this will provide a different option that will address needs of students who may prefer telehealth or cannot get an in-person meeting right away but desire to speak with someone sooner. We expect a set of services like this will cost upwards of $800,000 annually and we are working now on identifying the funds for this effort.  

Additional Training 

We are also working to provide greater training for our employees who work directly with students. One of these is a training course called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). University staff participated in this training during Winter Break. We are planning have more staff trained this semester and continue until all Student Affairs staff have received it. ASIST is a program connected to and supported by JMU so costs for this will be manageable. 

The other training we are trying to acquire is called Kognito, which is a set of training modules that faculty and staff can use to prepare for conversations with students who are struggling so they can be understanding and supportive and learn techniques to be successful working with students. There will be a cost associated with implementing Kognito but we are hoping to gather private support as we pilot this effort as soon as possible. 

Giving Day 

For Giving Day this year we have chosen to feature the Counseling Center as one of our primary fundraising priorities to get greater funding and support from donors that want to help JMU be a better place for our students. We are incredibly hopeful that this effort will provide both financial support and greater awareness of the Counseling Center. 

Non-Clinical Interventions 

Each department in Student Affairs can and should play a role in supporting the health and well-being of our students. We are working on several non-clinical interventions across campus. The first of these is the creation of similar “Oasis” spaces like the one in the Counseling Center. UREC has created the “Core and Connect” program that is about to launch its first group next week to help students build community and connections through exercise. We are hopeful that this program will be successful and lead to multiple groups this semester. We are examining a range of other potential options to help students in ways outside of the work within the Counseling Center and Dean of Students office.   

Increased Resources for Health and Well-being 

We have met several times with Student Government Association (SGA) leaders about this topic and support their efforts to get greater support at the State level. Mental health is not just a JMU issue, it is a part of our lives and it exists at every school in Virginia. We need help and this should be a priority in Richmond. We appreciate the passion, efforts and advocacy of the SGA, and specifically Grace Bailey, in pushing her Bill of Opinion through and thank every student who has signed it and shown their support.  We do not believe we can do this alone; we need support from outside of JMU and we are hopeful this effort by the SGA will lead to greater resources for all institutions in Virginia to support their students. 

There is significant work to be done and I am not sure if what we are working on right now will be the answer, but we will not rest until we develop a successful set of interventions to support all our students. If you have additional ideas on how JMU can improve in its support of the health and well-being of its students, I will ask that you respond through the link below and consider joining my Student Advisory Board where we discuss this and many other topics regularly. I am always available and happy to talk with each one of you and hear your thoughts and concerns.   

Dr. Tim Miller 

If you have a question or feedback regarding this update, please submit here: https://jmu.questionpro.com/t/AQ3XdZrFOy You can submit your feedback anonymously.  

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