Two years ago, as student mental health complaints were rising at the College of William and Mary, Associate Vice President for Health and Wellness Kelly Crace engineered a link to JED, a national organization that aims to protect student emotional health and prevent suicide.
JED is a nonprofit organization that partners with high schools and colleges nation-wide to strengthen their mental health, substance abuse and suicide-prevention programs. Currently, there are more than 1,000 colleges and universities that partner with JED, which means that 10 percent of undergraduate students at four-year institutions are covered by JED’s guidelines.
Once Crace formed a partnership, other co-directors, including psychology professor Chris Conway, joined the College’s JED efforts. Now, the College is working to follow JED’s prescribed campus policies and develop a plan to implement changes to mental health policies.
I care about student psychopathology,” Conway said. “I am a clinical psychologist, I study psychopathology. I think it’s important to have a director of the program who understands the origins of mental health problems.”
“I care about student psychopathology,” Conway said. “I am a clinical psychologist, I study psychopathology. I think it’s important to have a director of the program who understands the origins of mental health problems.”
Conway is one of the co-directors working on a strategic plan that will serve as the framework for developing initiatives and policies for the College. This will also serve as a guide for staff and faculty to detect student distress. For example, if a student approaches a faculty member and indicates that they are struggling to turn in assignments due to a mental health concern, this guide will instruct faculty on how to approach the situation and direct the student to mental health resources on campus.
While the College’s JED program is still working on finalizing the strategic plan, JED representatives have begun to implement other initiatives to address mental health concerns on campus. According to Conway, the program has begun to restructure the College’s website and mobile app so that emergency contact information is more available to students in distress.
“Another thing that we are doing is to figure out the best approach to handling students who are in crisis,” Conway said. “This is a really tricky situation, because students who are in crisis need to be advised or need recommendation on where the most appropriate treatment is, and sometimes that is off campus, like in the case of an emergency psychiatric hospitalization. This is a huge issue that is of interest to administrations or faculty. We are looking at how to develop a program that is going to give help to the students who need it, while maintaining respect and an understanding of people’s rights as students on campus.”
According to Conway, a lot of the policies that JED is working to enact are ones that are long term because of the bureaucratic process, but once they come into effect, they will be managed and refined by student groups and other organizations that will inhabit the Integrated Wellness Center. Group-based therapy is one such initiative that will be offered through the IWC as part of JED’s strategic plan.
At the College, JED’s representatives have worked to establish different routes for psychological treatment or the prevention of student mental health complaints. One of these, group-based therapy, is designed for students that have difficulties with emotion regulation, or students who feel like they have variable and intense emotions that they want to better manage. This therapy will take place in a classroom setting, where participants will learn emotion-management strategies. This is also known as a cognitive-behavioral treatment, or CBT.
“One of JED’s priorities is to make sense of that from a student and administrative perspective,” Conway said. “One of the things that we are working to improve is our communication with the student body, and get input from students and in general. Student rates of mental health problems have been skyrocketing at a national level, and William and Mary is not an exception to this trend. This initiative is super important on the larger timescale, but … it seems like campuses, not just ours, are working to be responsive to these rising rates of identified student health problems.”
In accordance with the strategic plan, JED is also working to disseminate statements about mental health complaints and student distress for faculty to include in syllabi, similar to the statement on student accessibility services. This would be a statement on how mental health causes concerns for students on a personal level and can affect studies and performance in university coursework.
According to Conway, the plan for this is for it to be sent out in the spring 2018 semester, and professors could opt to include it in their syllabi then.
Two ongoing projects involve Kognito training and doing environmental scans of the campus. Kognito training is a program that will first train people with “social influence,” such as Orientation Aides and Resident Assistants, to recognize and address suicide risks. Once the first round of training is complete, those influencers will spread the training to others, like new students.
Environmental scans involve identifying high-risk places for potential suicides and incidents of self-harm. Once these locations are identified, JED will work with the Office of Facilities Maintenance and the William and Mary Police Department to restructure these locations to limit the physical risk of suicide and to add signage to promote helpful resources.
Research evidence has shown this to be critical in minimizing suicide risks,” Conway said. “We are working with the administration to do that at parking garages, rooves of buildings and at Lake Matoaka — places where drowning and falling is possible are some of the most obvious. We are also recommending that the College replaces closet rods with breakaway closet rods, so that if a student was considering hanging themselves, it wouldn’t be possible there. The evidence actually says that those small simple precautions make a meaningful difference in suicide rates.”
“Research evidence has shown this to be critical in minimizing suicide risks,” Conway said. “We are working with the administration to do that at parking garages, rooves of buildings and at Lake Matoaka — places where drowning and falling is possible are some of the most obvious. We are also recommending that the College replaces closet rods with breakaway closet rods, so that if a student was considering hanging themselves, it wouldn’t be possible there. The evidence actually says that those small simple precautions make a meaningful difference in suicide rates.”
Health Outreach Peer Educators is one student organization that has already partnered with JED. According to Sarah Kook ’18, JED’s goal to promote mental health on campus aligns with HOPE’s mission to provide health information to the College community.
“JED strives to address this issue by starting initiatives and providing guidelines in various areas, including: University policy, student wellness, help-seeking behavior, mental health services, environmental safety, academic performance, sense of belonging and identifying students at risk,” Cook said in a written statement. “HOPE supports their intersectional, multi-dimensional approach to foster a healthy campus environment. We hope that JED will reduce stigma and build a sense of cohesion and support within the W&M community, not just among students but with the staff and faculty members as well. While HOPE is a student-led organization (with few advisers) that develops programs mostly for students, JED brings all college affiliates together to foster well-being for all of W&M’s community members. HOPE is excited to see faculty members in action, often in collaboration with students.”
According to Conway, JED is important to him because it serves as the group that connects all the parties interested in mental health advocacy.
“JED is that thing,” Conway said. “We are connected with the Dean of Students, the dean’s office, and we are connected with the administration. We are a combination of all of that, plus the faculty. If the students have agendas, I think they should come to us and we can amplify their voices and their impact.”