University Addresses Mental Health Concerns

Fredonia’s Cedric Howard, vice president for student affairs, and Provost Teresa Brown provided college council members with an update on recruitment and retention at December’s college council meeting. Photo by Mary Heyl

FREDONIA — According to Terry Brown, provost at the State University of New York at Fredonia, an emerging obstacle to student retention is the mental health crisis, which she discussed at a recent college council meeting.

While retention challenges are ongoing at most colleges, Brown identified students’ mental health issues as a growing concern when it comes to students not just wanting, but having the ability to continue their course of study at Fredonia.

Brown was pleased to report that Fredonia maintains a three-year retention average of 75 percent, meaning that on average, 75 percent of the college’s first-time, first-year undergraduate students continue their education at Fredonia the next year.

This number is above the median retention rate for other SUNY comprehensive schools, and Brown and Cedric Howard, Ph.D., vice president for student affairs, are committed to increasing this rate.

Brown identified three main challenges to retention, all of which the administration expects year to year. “If there’s some kind of financial hold, we bring in people from Student Accounts to deal with that,” Brown explained. “If it’s an academic issue, we make sure they get help from an advisor or dean’s office,” she said of the second challenge. “If it’s a personal issue, we intervene and get them into counseling, if that’s what they need,” she said of the third challenge.

These three challenges are further supported by a batch of automated forms the administration received from students leaving Fredonia. According to Brown, more than 70 forms have recently been returned, all of which point to the three challenges, plus mental health concerns. “It’s a trend across the country: We’re seeing more mental health issues,” Brown stated. “That is a marked increase. When I was a dean, 10 years ago we talked about a mental health crisis. It’s worse now. Students need far more support and counseling than we realize.”

Council Chairman Frank Pagano asked Brown to define mental health issues. “Is it also drug addiction? Alcoholism?” he asked. Brown responded that mental health concerns include depression, anxiety and that abuse of alcohol is decreasing while marijuana use is increasing.

Howard identified three primary groups of mental health issues. The first group he identified was those students with more complex and severe mental health concerns “that are now entering four year and post-secondary options in part because of the support they were getting in K through 12,” he explained.

Howard went on to identify a second group, which consists of students who, while treated and medicated in high school, are now struggling to cope with the additional stressors of collegiate life.

“And now we have a group that is very interesting,” Howard said of the third. Based on a series of focus groups created by the counseling center, a group emerged that administration had not even considered. “We have a significant group of students that they heard, when their parents dropped them off for college, they had been on medication their entire lives and that they have a disability that no one ever told them about. Now they’re in college and their parents have done all these things for them for years. And now the parents are saying, ‘Deal with them.’ And that’s what we’re having to deal with.”

Howard said the campus is addressing this issue in a variety of ways, including referring students to the eight counselors on campus. Additionally, the college has individuals who serve in a social-worker capacity to assist students from a case-management perspective. Howard recently put in a proposal to the NCAA for this kind of involvement in the athletic department “because of the stigma associated with being an athlete, this ‘You’re not supposed to have mental health issues,'” he explained.

Kevin Kearns, Ph.D., vice president for Advancement, Engagement, and Economic Development, pointed out that Fredonia is the only SUNY campus that offers online mental health support to its students. Kearns was responsible for bringing the county-supported program, myStrength, to the college, which is also available on mobile devices for students. The program offers 24/7 support for students struggling with depression, anxiety and more, including videos, tips and ways to track their physical and mental well-being.

“One thing I want to underscore that Cedric said is de-stigmatizing getting help,” Brown stated. Earlier that day, she learned that the number of students seeking help from tutoring has increased, which she sees as a good sign. “That means students are going for the support,” she explained. “We have really been trying to drive that message home to our students, since their first day. Every one of us, no matter who we are, needs help at some point. Let’s feel comfortable about asking the next person for help.”

Brown is planning a more comprehensive presentation on retention for the next college council meeting, which is set for Wednesday, Feb. 27.