The Covid-19 pandemic has hit college students hard. Even before the disease forced campus closures, studies showed alarming and rising rates of depression and anxiety among undergraduates. Subsequent research found that pandemic conditions caused a further spike in stressors. For example, Active Minds conducted a nationwide survey of 2,086 college students at the beginning of the pandemic. It showed that 80 percent felt Covid-19 had “negatively impacted” their mental health, and 20 percent said their mental health had “significantly worsened.”
Ithaca College, prior to the pandemic, began exploring new ways to support student mental health with the appointment in 2019 of Brian Petersen as the new head of the Center for Counseling and Psychiatric Services. The effort gained traction in 2020 when the school inked a four-year partnership with The Jed Foundation, a national nonprofit devoted to supporting mental health in young adults.
According to the foundation, the JED Campus program is a strategic partnership that guides colleges through a collaborative process of program and policy development to enhance existing work and foster systemic improvement.
Ithaca College’s participation in the JED Campus program began with a self-assessment of student mental health support based on a JED questionnaire to identify areas in need of attention.
Twelve hundred of Ithaca College’s 5,000 students then participated in the Health Minds Study, a survey examining mental health status, campus climate, utilization of support services, and related issues to inform institutional policies and practices. The survey, which has been conducted at 400 colleges and universities since 2007, is operated by the Healthy Minds Network for Research on Adolescent and Young Adult Mental Health based at the University of Michigan and Boston University.
“In addition to helping you identify specific improvements to make, the JED program forces you to create a structure around the whole process,” Petersen said. As head of the college’s JED Campus task force, Petersen will submit annual reports to JED about the progress being made. Another measurement will take place toward the end of the JED partnership when a follow-up Health Minds survey is conducted.
The initial Healthy Minds survey highlighted symptoms of depression and anxiety among Ithaca College students at a higher rate than the national average, Petersen said. At the same time, he added, the survey indicated that the school’s students are less affected by stigma and more open to receiving mental health services than many peers across the country.
For example, among the Ithaca College students participating in the survey, 47 percent identified with overall depression and 25 with major depression, compared to 39 percent and 21 percent nationally. Forty-one percent of Ithaca College respondents identified with anxiety disorder compared to 34 percent nationally. Only 2 percent of Ithaca College students said they “would think less of someone who has received mental health treatment,” compared to 6 percent nationally.
Petersen said that the results of the self-assessment and the Healthy Minds Study have already prompted new initiatives to improve services.
He said that the school is exploring new models for responding to after-hours mental health crises, which are currently handled by the campus Office of Public Safety and a third-party psychological counseling service.
Another goal is tightening up support relationships and lines of communication with community providers like the Cayuga Medical Center, and launching new ones such as potentially with MindWell Center LLC, an Ithaca mental health counseling service, Petersen said. Part of this, he added, entails establishing close referral relationships with community providers who are better equipped to deal with specialized conditions such as eating disorders, sexual assault trauma, and substance use addiction.
Petersen said that another possible initiative aims for a more systemic approach to campus mental health education, through regular programming that highlights issues like depression and suicide, centralized hubs for communicating mental health information, operationalizing broad campus support for student mental health, and mental health gatekeeper training for faculty, staff, and students.
“We have to have a systemic and a community wide approach,” Petersen said.
The partnership with JED came together quickly soon after Petersen’s arrival from Pace University, where the Pace Counseling Center had worked with JED to identify and implement a gatekeeper program to train faculty, staff, and students in bystander intervention and suicide prevention protocols. Senior Ithaca College administrators including then-President Shirley M. Collado favored the initiative after meeting JED representatives at a student mental health conference. A financial hurdle was overcome when the parents of a current student stepped forward to pay a JED onboarding fee.