RI summit addresses student mental health issues

By Phyllis Hanlon
March 10th, 2019

RI college campus mental health servicesIn January, government and local college and university leaders met to discuss the prevalence of stress and anxiety on college campuses.

Governor Gina Raimondo called for the summit to help identify opportunities and strategies for collaboration among the counseling centers on Rhode Island’s college campuses, according to Nicole Shaffer-Thomas, director of communications and outreach, RI Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner.

The summit produced a number of good ideas, said Vanessa M. Britto, MD, MSc, FACP, executive director of health and wellness at Brown University.

Britto, also assistant vice president for campus life and student services said Rhode Island’s size and the proximity of the colleges and universities facilitates coalition building, which is key in addressing mental health needs on campus.

“We know that health care services are often mal-distributed,” Britto said.

College campuses typically have few resources and an inadequate number of providers to whom students can be referred.

“We have to identify where the providers are and how much they know about student issues. We also need to find out if insurance will allow students to access providers in the community,” she said.

Some Rhode Island colleges had already implemented measures to improve mental health services prior to the summit. During the 2015-2016 academic year, Brown University integrated health promotion efforts by placing mental and physical health services under the same organizational structure.

“The idea was to enhance the student experience and create efficiency and efficacy,” said Britto.

The university is planning to construct a new building that will house the integrated services model and also create another residence hall. Health services, counseling and psychological services, Brown emergency medical services and BWell, the college’s health promotion campaign, will be co-located in the new building.

Brown provides on-going counseling groups, pop-up workshops, and awareness campaigns and disseminates health information in various ways.

The university also has a large peer health leader program that includes close to 100 student ambassadors who are readily available to offer assistance.

As a result of the summit, Rhode Island College (RIC) launched its HOPE Line, a 24-hour emergency student hotline, on January 22.

Ryan Porell, PsyD, RIC’s senior staff psychologist, explained that students previously had access to campus counseling staff Monday through Friday from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm only.

If students called outside of that timeframe, they were referred to campus police or asked to call 911, Porell said.

In search of a more efficient means of helping students, RIC teamed up with a third party, independent contractor. Hundreds of licensed clinicians man the phones around the clock and have clearance to gather information and conduct assessments by phone.

Depending on the student’s responses, the clinician places the caller into one of three categories: routine, urgent, or emergent, Porell said.

If a student calls the HOPE line during regular business hours, he or she is instructed to contact the counseling center for immediate assistance.

The 24-hour hotline emails a report of all callers to RIC the following day. “We can then reach out to the student,” Porell said. “We hope fewer people will fall through the cracks using this method.”

The inaugural summit met with great success, according to Britto. “We felt there was an opportunity to build coalition and it makes sense to come together again,” she said.

Shaffer-Thomas said that the Summit planning committee will reconvene in March to debrief the event and determine next steps, which may include future summits or other opportunities for collaboration.

Phyllis Hanlon has been a regular contributor to New England Psychologist since 1999. As an independent journalist, she has also written for a variety of traditional and alternative health magazines and business consumer and trade publications. She also serves as writer/editor for custom publications.

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