posted on: Thursday October 10, 2019
by Alexandra Huzyk ’20
Cheryl Granai, an outreach coordinator at Providence College, spoke about her experiences with helping students who have had mental health issues in the past, and gave advice for the PC community on the best way to handle these situations.
AH: What training do students, or staff, have to recognize mental health scenarios?
CG: We have a couple of ways for students to recognize if someone is in emotional distress. The first is Kognito. It is an online simulation. All of the freshmen, student leaders, and employees are required to take it, but I wish all of our students were required to take it each year. It goes through all of the basic, concerning signs of what would indicate a student experiencing some kind of emotional distress. And then it goes through the right way to have a conversation with that student, because it has to be non-judgmental, validating, and done in a way that does not shut down the student. The third piece of the training is once you have identified that you have a student in crisis, what are your resources on campus and where do you go from there?
The second training we do is called Step-Up Bystander. We do that for all the incoming freshmen, athletes, and Rec sports teams. Step-Up is like Kognito, but the focus is on if you see a student in distress, that you are not necessarily connected to, or if you are in a situation where something seems to be awry but it is unclear. And so this takes you through the process of identifying if this is an issue, bringing others in to validate, and intervening in ways that you still feel safe but you are helping the student. The program is designed so you can talk about any scenario, such as sexual abuse, hazing, relationship problems, mental health issues, substance abuse.
AH: What resources do we have for students on this campus?
CG: We have the Personal Counseling Center, which is wonderful. However, the reality of the situation is that nearly 60 percent of students never step foot in the Center. So the question is, how do you get this information to them? With the PC Lifelines Grant, we’ve been able to do a number of things. One of the things the Grant asks us to do is to identify the students at risk… The College has a Care Team, a group of staff and administrators from all areas, that routinely meets and follows students that have been labeled as ‘at risk.’ And that can be a number of things: a student who has not been showing up for class, is returning from a leave of absence, etc.
We also have implemented some mental health programming to convey information to students about mental health awareness, but we also need to talk about mental illness. And how do you do that in a way that is not threatening for a student? So what we have done is looked for speakers with ‘lived experience,’ and that means we want to bring speakers in that students can identify with. These are speakers that have had mental illness, who have lived through it, who have come out the other end, that have developed a mental health regime with positive coping skills… and it is really a story of personal resilience. We have had three speakers like that, and we are bringing another in for Mental Health Awareness Month on Oct. 22.
The other thing we do is we provide resources for students who left campus for mental health reasons. So, a leave of absence in general is disruptive, but, you add that component of mental illness and then it becomes scary. So we developed protocol to follow these students the whole time they are on a leave. It takes the form of email, text, or sometimes in person meetings.
Oftentimes students do not respond, but research shows that just simply reaching out with a concerned message improves the mental health of the student. And then what we do when they come back, which can be just as disruptive, we meet in person once or twice a month to build resilience skills and to develop a new narrative of who they are.
We also developed a resilience case model, that is built on resilience coaching. Students can self-refer, and come to three to five sessions and work on these skills. The last piece is just happening now, and stems from a 2001 grad from PC who struggled with anxiety and depression. He felt like there were not any resources for him on campus. So he goes off to graduate school and founds a company, and comes back to PC last year offering grant money to help students deal with anxiety and depression. So we started this academic resilience fellowship, and asked faculty from around the campus if they would participate. And what we are asking is for them to incorporate resilience building skills into coursework.
AH: How would you differentiate being sad versus being depressed?
CG: There is sadness, and occasional depression, that happens in everybody’s life. But if this sadness persists, if you start to isolate yourself, if you stop caring for yourself, if your sleep changes, if you are abusing substances more than you normally do, if you are starting to have thoughts of suicide or ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ then that is depression. That is the difference between having a blue day and having something happen to me that is consistent and changing the way I behave and think.
AH: For students on the fence, deciding whether or not to go to the Counseling Center, what would you say to them?
CG: I do not think counseling would do any harm even if there was absolutely nothing wrong with you. There is no harm in that, and just have a conversation. And many times, a student will go to a counselor and go once a semester—maybe three times. It doesn’t have to be an ongoing, weekly occurrence. It can be a one-stop shopping, like I need to know if what I’m thinking and feeling is normal and to give me some tools to deal with whatever is coming up, whether that be anxiety, stress…
AH: For freshmen, or any class, who have a roommate who needs help but doesn’t want to get any; what suggestions do you have?
CG: If you’re concerned with a student and they are not willing to get help for themselves, and you have tried having these conversations with them, I think that the best thing to do is go to a trusted adult. Go to them and say: ‘Look, this is what I am seeing, this is how the student is responding, what do you think I should do?’ The RA’s are a way to go as well, but I do think that it helps to get that sort of validation from someone who is older and that they can trust. Either way is not bad, but you don’t want to hold onto this yourself and just hope for the best.
Then there is a situation where a student you’re dealing with reveals to you that they have had thoughts of either suicide or harming themselves or they do not want to be here anymore. In that situation, we advise students to stay with the person and get help from the outside however they can—text or call for help. Because when you hear those things, you don’t want to leave the student alone. Some people call an RA, Public Safety, Personal Counseling… If you are hearing something that is specifically about a plan, and it is 3 a.m., you want to text or call Public Safety. Explain to them what is happening and that you do not want to leave the student alone. These are really scary conversations, for everybody. But these types of crises are short lived and they pass. The best thing to do, if you are worried about any kind of suicidal plan or follow through, is to not leave the student.