Faculty and staff train to help distressed students

Melissa Simon

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Illustration by Jennifer Luxton/ Visual Editor

CSUN faculty and staff received a letter from Harold Hellenbrand, provost and vice president of Academic Affairs, regarding mental health resources available on campus in September. It suggested a program meant to help people recognize potential problems and another is on the way.

“As members of this campus community, we are all committed to not only the academic success of our students, but also their well-being,” Hellenbrand said in the letter. “Nationally, students are reporting increased levels of distress, putting them at risk for depression, substance abuse and a host of other mental health challenges.”

The letter also mentioned a training program for faculty and staff called Kognito.

“Kognito is an interactive training program that uses avatars to help faculty, staff and students engage in a training tool to help them be better prepared to help students who might be showing signs of mental distress,” said Dr. Mark Stevens, director of University Counseling Services.

“There are three types of training: students identifying other students, one for faculty and staff identifying students, and one for faculty and staff when interacting with veteran students,” Stevens said.

Stevens added the program’s avatars help the user find out why their response may or may not have been the best option.

“They give you tools about how to interact with our students, and then they give resources that are available to anybody who uses the program (and) is connected to CSUN or the community,” he said. “They’re fun, and it’s kind of like they’re bringing the fun into training. It’s not dry, and people enjoy taking the training. They’re learning while taking the program.”

William Watkins, vice president of Student Affairs and dean of students, said the campus administration is aware of the stresses that create challenges for students with or without mental illness and wants to assist them in achieving the most successful outcomes.

“We are also aware of how tragedies like Sandy Hook and Aurora destabilize us all, causing a range of reactions from stigmatization to fear,” Watkins said. “Despite these very human responses, as a caring university community, we must continue to educate ourselves about the kinds of disabling conditions that can be experienced by those around us, provide support where needed or possible, and encourage individuals who see something of concern to say something to those who can intervene.”

Dee Shepherd-Look, a psychology professor and clinical psychology graduate program director, has been at CSUN for 42 years and said she has encountered many distressed students over the years.

“The first thing (to do) is to recognize when someone is in distress,” she said. “Secondly, do something about it.”

She added she received the letter but has not used the program yet.

“It’s an excellent program and is very good for faculty (who are) not particularly in the social sciences (or) don’t have previous knowledge,” Shepherd-Look said. “It’s very informative in how to recognize distressed students and how to help by using the same principles as a psychologist.”

Stevens agreed with Shepherd-Look and said people need to give themselves permission to ask questions and be specific in doing so without stigmatizing the person or being judgmental.

In addition to Kognito, Stevens said another training model will be introduced in February with Dr. Alejandro Martinez from Stanford University. The training model is called QPR, which is Questioning, Persuading, Referring.

“The model of QPR training is kind of like CPR. You don’t need to be a physician to learn it, and it is guided for (mental health) professionals but also non-professionals,” he said. “This is a suicide prevention training, where we are going to have around 35 staff and faculty who will be trained (and certified to train others).”

Once the staff and faculty members are certified, they will be paired with a counselor and go to various on-campus centers and departments to work with students, Stevens said.

The 35 staff and faculty members were chosen based on the volume of students in each location and include staff members from the Pride Center, Veteran’s Resource Center, the Educational Opportunity Program Center, the Career Center, the University Student Union, Student Health Center and other various departments.

Shepherd-Look said some people might be afraid to address students who might be distressed or in need of help.

“Faculty throughout the country have a fear of dealing with mentally ill students, fear of getting involved and being sued for not doing something right, so they just look the other way,” she said. “We’ve got to step in, step up and start helping these students.”

Statewide, the funding has been decreased for long-term programs for mentally ill people, said Meredith Sheldon, part-time child development professor who teaches a child advocacy class.

“With government or state agencies, one problem is that workers are required to work within a certain framework or model, and the other is that the number of sessions for a patient is limited to 10 to 20,” Sheldon said.

Shepherd-Look added about half of the homeless people in L.A.’s Skid Row and in the state are mentally ill and deserve better treatment.

“One way to treat the outbreak is to help the mentally ill, diagnose them and treat them,” she said. “Another way is to offer better screening with those who buy weapons, and crackdown on bullying and peer pressure.”

Sheldon said people need to come together as a community at a government and human level.

“The government needs to offer more easily accessible programs and we, as humans, need to be more compassionate in helping those that are mentally ill and get them the help they need.”

 

Think you have noticed an issue? Here are some possible symptoms you may want to pay attention to. Information provided by Dr. Mark Stevens, director of University Counseling Services.

-Sudden changes in appearance

– Comments that may seem like a cry for help— talking about suicide or killing, using guns, etc.

-Changes of behaviors—drastic change in clothes, not being able to take care of themselves

-Big weight gain or big weight loss

-A student stops coming to class or their academic work takes a large dip