'If you see something, do something': Mental health resources at Penn State

October 11, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Tyler Aiken, social chair for the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA), knows how hard it can be to deal with anxiety and adjust to college life.

“Coming into freshman year, I’d dealt with anxiety for a long time, and by sophomore year, I was having a really hard time trying to deal with a lot of things going on in my life,” Aiken said. “I was lucky to have a support network of friends to help me get through that — which makes me want to make sure there’s a support network at the University for everyone.”

That’s why Aiken leads the planning for the UPUA’s annual Mental Health and Wellness Week, which seeks to fight the stigma surrounding mental health and raise awareness of the mental health resources available to the Penn State community. Cultural discourse around mental health is “a fairly new conversation,” Aiken said, but one that’s vital to have — everyone deals with mental health issues, and there’s nothing wrong with talking about it, or seeking help if you’re struggling.

For Ben Locke, Penn State’s senior director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the increased awareness surrounding mental health has led to “something of a cultural shift” in recent years. Over the past decade, Locke said there has been a significant increase in students turning to counseling services at campuses across the nation. At Penn State, the number has increased by more than 50 percent over the last decade.

“That’s actually a positive sign,” Locke said. “That increase doesn’t mean there are suddenly more people dealing with mental health issues but rather that more people are reaching out for the help they need.”

Thanks in part to Penn State’s 2016 senior class gift that established a CAPS endowment, as well as support from the Penn State Alumni Association, a substantial funding increase from President Eric Barron and a new student mental health fee in 2017, CAPS has grown in recent years with the creation of new programs and the hiring of additional counselors across all campuses. In addition, the new “Red Folder Initiative” aims to educate faculty and staff members about the resources available to students who might be struggling. Locke aims to continue this growth to meet the mental health needs of all students, and encourages people to reach out if they need help or support.

“If you’re struggling, seeking help is absolutely a sign of strength, not weakness,” Locke said. “And if you see something, do something. If you think a friend or peer is struggling in some way, check in, ask them how they are, or reach out for a consultation with a trusted source, like CAPS.

“We’re all Penn Staters, and we as a community have to recognize the role we all play in providing support, assistance and encouragement to each other.”

What to do if you’re struggling

There are many resources available to Penn Staters dealing with day-to-day struggles or mental health issues that might not rise to the level of an immediate crisis. Students dealing with a challenge that could benefit from a mental health professional are encouraged not to wait until it becomes a crisis; instead, consider the following resources:

  • WellTrack, a free app and online self-evaluation tool that offers tips for managing stress and anxiety, self-help videos, and guidance in determining next steps.
  • Life Hacks workshops, a free service run by CAPS that offers guidance on common concerns for Penn State students, including developing mindfulness, self-compassion, body-positivity and dealing with anxiety.
  • CAPS offers ongoing treatment and therapy at University Park, while each Commonwealth Campus also offers counseling and therapy services. Spaces are limited, however, and students looking for ongoing counseling are encouraged not to wait to reach out. Continuing to expand the number of counselors and availability of ongoing treatment is one of Locke’s major goals for the future of mental health services at Penn State.
  • CAPS Chats, which are informal consultations with CAPS counselors available at 10 locations across the University Park campus. Consultations are free of charge and no appointment is necessary. Counselors can help with everything stress and anxiety to relationship difficulties, and can help determine whether further counseling might be a good next step.
  • Both the Penn State Crisis Line (1-877-229-6400) and the Crisis Text Line (text “LIONS” to 741741), despite their names, are open to students dealing with non-crisis situations — including faculty, staff and students at all campuses who have a question about someone else. The licensed professionals with the Penn State Crisis Line can help evaluate your individual situation, offer guidance and help connect callers with further resources if appropriate.
  • The Office of Health Promotion and Wellness at University Park, which offers resources promoting mental health and general well-being, including stress management programs, a relaxation room, peer-to-peer mentoring, and alcohol and substance intervention programs.

Additional crisis resources

For those in immediate crisis, services through CAPS are available without a wait. Locke says a “crisis” can include thoughts of harming oneself or others, loss of housing, a recent death in the family or any other traumatic event that profoundly and negatively impacts one’s day-to-day life and ability to function.

If you want to connect with a mental health professional in the event of a crisis:

  • For immediate or life-threatening emergencies, call 911.
  • Call CAPS at 814-863-0395 during regular business hours, or connect with the counseling offices available at each of Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses.
  • Call the Penn State Crisis Line — a 24/7 toll-free service staffed by licensed professionals available to all Penn Staters at University Park and Commonwealth Campuses — at 1-877-229-6400.
  • Text the 24/7 Crisis Text Line, another 24/7 resource available to all community members, by texting “LIONS” to 741741.

Students in crisis may also connect with the Office of Student Care and Advocacy, which works with students struggling with everything from medical emergencies and hospitalization to food or housing insecurity. Student Care and Advocacy works with partners across the University to empower students impacted by medical issues, mental health crises, food and housing insecurity, and more. Students at Commonwealth Campuses may also benefit from services offered by the Office of Student Affairs at their individual campus.

What to do if you think someone else is struggling

One of the most common issues Locke sees in students who come to CAPS for counseling is a feeling of disconnection and loneliness, while trying to adapt to life at Penn State. It’s a large university, Locke said, and it might not be easy adjusting when students first arrive — that’s why he sees the entire Penn State community as being on the front lines of the mental health conversation.

“Counseling is a wonderful resource, but ultimately, it doesn’t replace face-to-face relationships based on common interests. That’s why it’s so important to get connected while adjusting to college — talk to your RAs and classmates, go to student club fairs, make use of the resources around the University,” Locke said. “And if you see someone sitting alone, talk to them. Make new friends. Take care of each other.”

CAPS and UPUA are working together to share this message through a new program being rolled out this fall called the “Red Folder Initiative.” As part of the program, materials will be shared with all Penn State faculty members this fall semester as a reference guide on recognizing, responding to and referring distressed students to the proper resources.

How to spot people in distress

Faculty, as well as staff and students, are encouraged to watch for warning signs — such as sudden changes in behavior, academic performance and mood — and then to act in good faith to help. Locke notes that reaching out to counselors and advisers at Penn State with concerns about a student’s well-being is not a violation of privacy laws, especially when done out of concern for health or safety.

Some of the options for how to respond to someone you think might be dealing with a mental health issue include:

  • Talk to the person directly, share your concerns or observations, ask how they are feeling and don’t be afraid to ask about thoughts of self-harm if you’re worried. Help them take concrete next steps such as setting up an appointment with an adviser or calling CAPS with them to schedule an appointment.
  • If you’re unsure what to do, call either CAPS or the Penn State Crisis Line (1-877-229-6400) to discuss your concerns with a licensed professional, who can offer counsel and guidance on how to best proceed.
  • Refer the student to the appropriate on-campus resource for their situation. In addition to CAPS, University Park students may benefit from the Gender Equity Center, Student Legal Services, the Multicultural Resource Center, the Center for Spiritual & Ethical Development, the LGBTQA student resource center or numerous other resources on campus dedicated to student success. Students at Commonwealth Campuses may benefit from similar services offered by the Office of Student Affairs at their campus.

At the end of the day, Aiken said, every student and faculty and staff member are all part of the Penn State family — a family that is proud to support each other.

“I want every student to know that you’re a member of this community, we care about you, and we’re here for you,” Aiken said.

  • Benjamin Locke

    Ben Locke, senior director of Counseling and Psychological Services, encourages all members of the Penn State community to take an active role in looking after their own mental health and that of those around them.

    IMAGE: Patrick Mansell
Last Updated September 23, 2020