Penn State prepares to support student wellness during challenging times

August 21, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As Penn State prepares to welcome students, faculty and staff back to campus for the fall semester, the University is taking steps to best support and empower student mental health and wellness during these challenging times.

“We have been working all spring and summer to convert almost every in-person service we offer into a virtual format,” said Ben Locke, director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). These include screenings, crisis services, individual and group counseling, informal CAPS chats sessions, psychiatry services, and more.

 “In addition, we have also been hard at work developing new services and resources for students that are virtual in nature.”

These include a new You@PSU online wellness portal, a confidential resource designed to help students thrive academically, personally and professionally while connecting them to campus resources to help them succeed. Another new tool called Thriving Campus allows for students to search for off-campus mental health and wellness resources and counselors, with filters to help students find the right fit for their own individual needs.

Locke said that CAPS is also working to expand its range of services by adding new telehealth options for students at both University Park and Commonwealth Campuses. Through these new services, students seeking services through CAPS can be connected with tele-coaching and tele-counseling services for students at University Park, while students at Commonwealth Campuses will able to access tele-psychiatry services -- allowing CAPS to best support students across the University regardless of their physical location. Locke noted that these new services are being launched so that Penn State is able to still provide mental health support to students across state lines during the pandemic, which is subject to additional regulations.

“There are challenges to providing these services across state lines, but those challenges are for CAPS to figure out on behalf of the student,” Locke said. “It’s important for students to know that if they are in need, if they’re in distress, to call CAPS at 814-863-0395 and we will help them figure it out. We are here for them.”

The University has also been working to help prepare faculty members to support student mental health and wellness. In a recent webinar hosted for more than 160 members of Penn State’s academic leadership from across all campuses and locations, faculty members, deans and department heads were trained on recognizing, responding to, and referring students in distress. The discussion featured guidance and expertise from Locke, as well as Student Affairs Interim Assistant Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Peggy Lorah and World Campus Director of Student Affairs Ashley Adams.

Lorah said that the circumstances surrounding this year — including both the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing national conversation around racial injustice — are likely to impact students’ well-being and mental wellness, and that some students are likely to be more impacted than others.

“Many students are feeling stressed, and it is natural to feel stressed in stressful times,” Lorah said. “We need to center caring, concern and empathy in all our interactions with students, and understand that the most important thing we can do in a time like this is actually listen to what they need to tell us.”

Lorah pointed to the Red Folder Initiative, a partnership between Penn State Student Affairs and the University Park Undergraduate Association, as an educational resource given to all faculty members to help them recognize signs of distress and identify when a student may need additional support or resources. These can include academic, physical and psychological signs of distress, as well as signs that a student may be a danger to themselves or others.

Drawing on her expertise with World Campus, Adams also talked with faculty about how to best engage with students and recognize signs of distress in an online or remote instruction environment. She shared that one common sign of potential distress is “actually the absence of any signs.” If a student, especially one who was previously engaged with the class, stops engaging, participating in discussion or turning in assignments, Adams encouraged faculty members to reach out directly to connect with the student and offer their empathy and support.

She also shared simple steps for remote instruction to help keep students engaged and help faculty members connect with their students, such as encouraging that cameras and microphones be turned on during remote classes if students are willing and able. This allows faculty members to more directly see if a student appears to be engaged, struggling, or otherwise in need of additional support.

Adams also encouraged all faculty members to be cognizant of their students’ identities, current events surrounding the ongoing national dialogue around racial injustice, and how these two elements intersect in students’ lives. She stressed that “leading with care and empathy” is key to supporting students grappling with these topics.

“People bring their identities and their full selves to all places, including the classroom,” Adams said. “I encourage all of our instructional faculty and online administrators to center students’ identities in their work and infuse identity work into the classroom.”

Adams shared that assigning course materials from a diverse range of scholars and authors, giving students opportunities to bring their identity and lived experiences into course discussions and assignments, and helping connect students with faculty members, scholars, mentors or professionals from similar backgrounds in their field can all be ways that faculty members can help support and empower students from many different groups.

Locke noted that faculty members, as well as other members of the Penn State community, have access to resources they can consult if they are ever concerned about a studentBoth the Penn State Crisis Line (1-877-229-6400) and the Crisis Text Line (text “LIONS” to 741741) are open to faculty, staff and students at all campuses if they have concerns about a student’s well-being and would like consultation with a licensed professional who can help evaluate the situation, offer guidance and help connect callers with further resources.

As the University prepares for the fall semester, Locke encouraged all members of the University community to take an active role in caring for themselves and for each other.

“What’s critical for everybody in the Penn State community to recognize is that we are all coping with unprecedented stressors and worry, and faculty, staff and students need to remember to always lead with empathy, care and curiosity,” Locke said. “During stressful times, it’s important that we are intentional and thoughtful to start with that first step in all our interactions every day.”

Last Updated September 23, 2020