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School & Program Updates

School & Program Updates

USF’s public health approach to addressing mental health

The University of South Florida was one of seven universities in the U.S. to be awarded the 2018 Healthy Campus Award from the Active Minds Healthy Campus, a nonprofit organization supporting mental health awareness and education for students that aims to change the conversation about mental health.

“The University of South Florida has become a national leader in student success for a variety reasons, including our holistic approach that emphasizes the physical, mental, emotional and social health of every student,” USF System President Dr. Judy Genshaft said.  “Sustaining a healthy campus culture and climate that enables student well-being and success is a key priority at our university.”

Increased access to counseling services, nap pods, online self-help modules, health and wellness coaches—these are just some of the ways USF is aiming to address mental health.

USF has adopted a “systems-thinking and public health approach” to improving the mental health and well-being of students.

Dr. Rita DeBate, USF associate vice president of health and wellness and professor at the College of Public Health, said this approach is vital to addressing mental health at the college level.

“I truly believe that it takes a community. We all have to look out for each other. When we look at early identification, we all have to be involved,” she said.

In a USF System wide plan aimed at addressing the mental health needs of students in a way that maximizes existing resources, Dr. DeBate and colleagues proposed MWell4Success (Mental Well-being for Student Success) as a way to ensure that the best services are in place to increase the capacity of the university to meet the mental health needs of students.

Using a tiered approach, the initiative includes universal, targeted and intensive interventions to address the mental health needs of students on a continuum of care—a strategy Dr. DeBate says is public health in action.

Efforts to address mental health needs will include social marketing staff, mental health outreach specialists, certified health and wellness coaches, licensed counselors, and care managers.

“If we really want to address mental health on college campuses, we have to think of a college campus as a community and addressing mental health in a community requires a systems-thinking approach,” she said.  “We wanted to take a public health approach to mental health.”

In the National College Health Assessment conducted of the undergraduate student body at USF every two years, notable findings highlighted an increase in the percentage of students diagnosed with anxiety, depression and panic attacks, with an overall decrease in the percentage of students being treated. The survey also found that males are treated for mental health issues at far lesser rate than females.

“It is important to note that many colleges and universities in the state, nation and abroad are observing the same trends,” Dr. DeBate said. “Nonetheless, it is critical that we address the mental wellness needs of our students so as to improve their quality of life and potential for academic and lifeline success.”

Findings also suggested that aside from academic issues, the top three factors that students found traumatic or very difficult to handle were sleep difficulties, personal appearance, career related issues, and intimate relationships.

“Although increasing access and providing high-quality mental health treatment services are critical, expanding efforts to prevent and promote the mental health of all students is essentials,” she said.

Hence, the systems-thinking public health approached of MWell4Success.

“Regardless of risk for mental health issues, all students take mental health literacy training to train them on identifying signs and symptoms of mental health issues not only in themselves, but among their peers, knowing how to approach someone and knowing what resources there are on campus,” Dr. DeBate said.

Self-help modules, known as TAO e-Mental Health (Therapy Assisted Online), are on-line interventions that allow for flexible access and meet many mental health help-seeking barriers, according to Dr. DeBate, including wait times for appointments, sense of control and anonymity, and stigma.

Dr. DeBate said anyone can access these modules without needing to go to the counseling center first.

It doesn’t stop there.

“Students need a place where they can relax, unwind, recharge. We have wellness centers where students can go and have a quiet place, with relaxation stations with nap pods, bean bag chairs and massage chairs,” she said.

The initiative also plans to increase mental health literacy among students, faculty and staff to identify signs and symptoms of poor mental wellbeing, while also establishing efforts to increase coping mechanisms through the Success and Wellness Coaching program.

“Through analysis of Counseling Center data, it was revealed that about 23-25 percent of students going to counseling center were going for things that they didn’t necessarily need a therapist for, but could use the benefit of a certified health and wellness coach,” DeBate said. “So, we started a Success and Wellness Coaching program to help students with stress management, time management, organization, effective communication, relationship skills and that type of thing. The Counseling Center now has that 23-25 percent to see additional students for those in need of therapy. Anyone can come to coaching.”

They have also instituted Mental Health First Aid training for faculty and staff.

“[Faculty and staff] will be able to identify students who are experiencing mental health issues and refer them to care,” she said.

USF Counseling Center service delivery hours have also been extended to improve access to USF licensed mental health providers and hours they are available.

“We now have night time hours and set up satellite centers to take away the stigma of going to a counseling center,” she said.

Dr. DeBate said centers now include other wellness activities, besides counseling, such as blood pressure checks or massage chairs, to help decrease the stigma around addressing mental health issues.

Social marketing campaigns are also being implemented toward populations with low mental health help seeking, particularly males and at USF males in STEM fields.

“We piloted social marketing campaigns at males in STEM fields,” she said. “The campaign basically is to get them to, one, recognize the physical signs and symptoms of poor mental wellbeing; and, two, get support through TAO and other MWell4Success services.”

All of these efforts push on the prevention and outreach to address mental health issues at the university, something DeBate said wouldn’t be possible without public health at the base.

“It’s to decrease stigma and have a purposeful call to action as we’re tracking those calls to action,” she said.

For more information about accessing the mental health resources at USF, visit USF Counseling Center’s website.