The University of Michigan is launching comprehensive action to transform how the health and well-being needs of students can be holistically addressed. The approach is outlined in a new report produced by the Student Mental Health Innovative Approaches Review Committee.
“Meeting the mental health needs of our students requires a broad institutional approach,” said Martino Harmon, vice president for student life. “That means including both preventative and responsive measures to address emerging issues as well as acute needs.”
Last spring, Harmon and Provost Susan M. Collins tasked the 12-member committee with exploring and recommending holistic, innovative approaches to addressing student mental health and well-being. The group examined current resources at U-M and convened a series of town hall meetings and outreach sessions to solicit the input of students, faculty and staff across campus.
“Collaboration between academic and student affairs is essential because it provides a greater understanding among faculty and staff, fosters a more nurturing and supportive environment for students and harnesses the full potential of our community,” Collins said.
Building on the work of past campus initiatives, such as the Graduate Student Mental Health Task Force study and the report from the Task Force on a Michigan Undergraduate Education in the Third Century, the committee recommended how to broaden the approach and strategically position resources to meet the emerging needs of students, and also offered recommendations for how current resources could be improved, expanded, assessed for effectiveness and communicated.
Plans are also in place to expand U-M’s current Student Life Health and Wellness Collective Impact infrastructure to be institutionwide and include faculty, staff and students.
The collective impact framework describes an intentional way stakeholders can work together and share information to solve a complex problem. This effort prioritizes looking at health and wellness through a holistic lens that acknowledges the interdependence of personal and community well-being.
“We know that mental health challenges can hinder academic success, which is why we felt a strong partnership between Student Life and Academic Affairs was critical to advancing this work,” said Amy Dittmar, senior vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs. Dittmar co-chaired the review committee with Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones.
“The rise and prevalence of mental health concerns and their effects on academic outcomes are why addressing student mental health is important for the academic missions of institutions,” Dittmar said.
The Student Mental Health Innovations Review Committee recommendations will launch the initial work teams as the expanded collective impact infrastructure is created this fall. Those efforts will have diverse representation from students, staff and faculty and will include:
- Creating a strategic plan and comprehensive infrastructure of faculty, staff and students for addressing the full range of health and wellness needs of undergraduate, graduate and professional students.
- Fostering a culture of empathy, compassion, creativity, flexibility and resilience to mitigate academic and other forms of stress in our community.
- Strengthening the continuum of care for students through innovation and ongoing improvement in service offerings and coordination to address the complex health and wellness needs of undergraduate and graduate students.
- Ensuring that the wealth of resources available on campus are visible and easily accessible.
- Hiring more mental health staff and developing a better triage system so students can access the specific services they need more quickly.
Robert D. Ernst, associate vice president for student life and executive director of University Health Service, will provide broad oversight and management of these efforts. Wolverine Wellness at UHS will serve as the backbone structure to advance this work, and will include faculty, staff, students and administrators who will maintain a commitment to examining mental health needs in a holistic manner. Funding has also been made available to hire a project manager and additional staff in key areas.
“This approach also prioritizes addressing this work through a lens of equity and inclusion and reinforces the idea that personal and community well-being is about more than individual behavior and skill development — but also a result of the culture and climate of the campus environment,” said Mary Jo Desprez, director of Wolverine Wellness.
In addition to suggestions to expand counseling and mental health services, there are recommendations for expanding peer-support programs, screening and linkage initiatives, technology-based services, faculty and staff training, and curriculum-based programs. Jones said student engagement is another critical element in making sure the university’s efforts are relevant and successful.
The committee report also recommends creating dashboards to enhance accountability and serve as markers of progress as the work to transform student mental health and wellbeing services within our community continues.
“Engaging all students — undergraduate, graduate and professional — as partners in improving mental health on campus can make all the difference,” Jones said. “Student well-being is foundational to academic success. Our goal is to address mental health and wellness holistically and to develop a comprehensive network of support along the continuum of care to foster an empathic, compassionate culture.”
Prioritizing mental health is laudable. I hope that the committee also recommends steps to improve staff retention in addition to the hiring increase. Hiring without retention cannot address staffing shortages, and increasing retention requires improving equity, climate, and compensation.