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

March 03, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s Senior Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Ben Locke has seen “something of a cultural shift” in recent years as mental health awareness has become a greater and greater part of the national dialogue.

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 ten years.

“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.”

Penn State is home to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH), an international practice-research network of more than 620 colleges and universities focused on understanding and describing college student mental health. The CCMH 2019 annual report found that colleges and universities are continuing to succeed in identifying and referring at-risk students to counseling centers, but that growing service capacity to serve these students will be a critical goal for universities moving forward.

Thanks in part to Penn State’s 2020 senior class gift that established a CAPS endowment, as well as support from the 2016 senior class gift, the Penn State Alumni Association, a substantial funding increase from President Eric Barron and a student mental health fee instituted in 2017, CAPS has grown and expanded in recent years with the creation of new programs and the hiring of additional counselors across all campuses. In addition, the “Red Folder Initiative,” led by the University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) and available at all campuses, 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.

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.

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

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 CenterStudent Legal Servicesthe 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.

Locke said that, ultimately, every Penn Stater has a role to play in making the University a supportive community.

"If you see someone sitting alone, talk to them. Make new friends. Take care of each other.”

Last Updated September 23, 2020