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Resiliency Project Aims to Improve Student Mental Health

Over the past several years, University Counseling Services (UCS) has experienced an increase in demand from the student body both nationally and at Boston College. Last year, reports indicated a 25-percent increase in student demand for counselors from UCS over the previous three years and this year. As a result, two more full-time staff members were added to UCS last month for fall 2016 after an anonymous donation was made to add a postdoctoral fellow to the department, and the Board of Trustees approved the addition of another staff psychologist.

Despite the increase in staff, members of the administration have been searching for other ways to offer support to students and to better understand the causes for the influx of patients at UCS.

“It’s nice, but it’s still not enough,” Associate Vice Provost and previous Director of UCS Thomas McGuinness said in response to the positions added in the department. “You could double the staff and they’d still be busy.”

Similarly, Craig Burns, interim director of UCS, explained in an email that he has found when there is increased availability, there is often increased demand as well. Consequently, this past year, McGuinness has been working on something he’s dubbed the Resiliency Project.

The project gets its name from its goal, which is to aim to increase the resiliency of the students at BC after national findings have shown that a decrease in the resiliency of children has contributed to an increase in mental health issues.

“There are many students on campus, at Boston College and other places, who are truly suffering,” Gray said. “You can’t blame them for it — that’s not helpful.”

—Peter Gray, psychology professor

McGuinness explained that his job in the project is to work with faculty to help it be better equipped to attend to the emotional needs of students before referring them to the counseling office.

Meanwhile, Elise Phillips, director of health promotion, is working on the student side of the project.

“We are working on developing educational programs for students to support them in becoming resilient,” Phillips said in an email.

This job includes creating the Resilience Video Project, featuring staff, faculty, and students sharing a story of resilience that they experienced in college as a way to help others, Phillips said. These will be posted on the UCS website.

In fall 2016, the Bounce Back Campaign will begin. This program, headed by Phillips, will help students make social connections, manage stress, seek resources, and focus on self-care, through educational programs, key messages, and a three-week challenge that will occur in spring 2017.

The project has been in the works for this past academic year and comes after Peter Gray, a professor in the psychology department, published an article in Psychology Today in September titled “Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges,” in which he discussed meetings held by the head of a counseling center at a major university about the decline in resilience among students. In an archived version of the article, he indicates that this university is Boston College.

In the article, Gray explained that the faculty at the meetings highlighted students’ reactions to grading, as well as interpersonal issues between themselves and their peers, as causes for emotional instability. Students who come to their professors with concerns in these areas are frequently referred to UCS, McGuinness said.

“A lot of things that come to counseling services could be handled somewhere else,” McGuinness said in regard to these situations. “Not everyone needs psychotherapy, but if they run into some kind of difficulty, they want to talk to somebody.”

McGuinness noted, however, that some faculty offer support to the students that come to them, and he is aiming to expand this.

“There are lots of faculty who do …mentoring … but they haven’t gotten much support for that or nor have we provided any opportunities for those people to get some additional support and provide forums for them to talk about it, so that’s what I’ve been doing,” McGuinness said.

McGuinness explained that for the Resiliency Project, he is working with a committee of faculty and deans to try to find ways to increase the resilience in the student body at BC, with a focus on empowering faculty to be more effective and expand its capacity to deal with issues brought to it by students.

The Resiliency Project carries with it a larger national debate about from where the increase in mental health issues and the demand on UCS is derived. Though McGuinness is of the mindset that a lower overall resilience among students is a contributor, he, Gray, and Vice President of Student Affairs Barbara Jones noted that there are many factors that contribute to the demand on UCS.

For example, the numbers of students who are entering college either on psychiatric medication, diagnosed with a mental health issue, or both are all increasing, while the stigma surrounding mental health issues is decreasing. This could be contributing to an increase in students’ openness surrounding these issues.

“University counseling centers and mental health services are being inundated with requests for services, which is a good thing that students feel more comfortable seeking psychological services,” McGuinness said.

Gray expressed backlash from students throughout the nation, which he received from his article in Psychology Today in defense of these other issues. He explained that the responses he got ranged but were similar within groups. Students were among the most upset responders, Gray said, acknowledging that many felt they were being blamed for their needs.

“There are many students on campus, at Boston College and other places, who are truly suffering,” Gray said. “You can’t blame them for it — that’s not helpful.”

Gray explained that, for whatever reasons, many are fearful, depressed, afraid of failing, and/or hearing messages that are contributing to an increase in anxiety about their futures. As a result, he said, blaming is not the solution. The aim instead should be to be supportive of the students in an autonomy-promoting way. This means supporting students in trying to solve their own problems, Gray said.

Molly Newcomb, co-director of UGBC’s mental health committee, director of UGBC’s mental health policy, and MCAS ’18, also noted that the line between who needs to see a professional and who does not is not so clear-cut when it comes to mental health and the issues students are dealing with on campus. As a result, it’s pertinent that UCS is able to see as many students as possible, she said.

Still, Newcomb expressed interest in the Resiliency Project as separate from the support UCS can offer. She said that UGBC’s mental health committee isn’t currently involved in the Resiliency Project but would like to be.

“What we’ve heard, just from talking with students and administrators, is that need for students to feel able to open up and feel supported, but also at the same time having the agency to help yourself through a tough time,” Newcomb said.

Featured Image by Alex Gaynor / Senior Heights Staff

April 14, 2016

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “Resiliency Project Aims to Improve Student Mental Health”

  1. —the stigma surrounding mental health issues is decreasing.
    Do you mean instead that we are questioning the ethics of people who direct that prejudice and rejecting their assertion? You do.