What would the process for intervention and support look like for a student at Gonzaga University who is struggling with mental illness? We’ve put together some potential pathways for two kinds of student scenarios.*
*Because the University attempts to support each student individually, and respond to needs as much as reasonably possible, response might look different in various situations.
Julie had a mental health diagnosis prior to attending college and was periodically seeing a mental health professional in her home community. In an ideal situation, Julie would be open about her diagnosis and needs, and Gonzaga could support her in her transition to college in these ways:
- Julie could connect with the Health & Counseling Services at the university and either choose to see a professional there or connect with one in the Spokane community.
“Sometimes people just want to keep their own practitioners at home, but with the transition to college and campus life, that just may not be enough,” says Jill Yashinsky-Wortman, director of the Center for Cura Personalis. “It’s important to have someone here locally to balance out the care you intend to receive when you’re home.”
- Second, Julie could connect with the Disability Access office, even if she doesn’t think she needs assistance with her courses at the start of the year. This office can review medical documentation to see if accommodations are appropriate for people who have a diagnosis of any health condition; the purpose of this office is to ensure equal access to education for any student, regardless of condition, so that the student has an opportunity to benefit from the full college experience.
“It’s important to do this early on,” says Yashinsky-Wortman. “If you have academic struggles later in the year and you haven’t asked for help, we can’t undo any negative impact already done to your grades.”
Unlike Julie, John hasn’t ever sought counseling, and doesn’t know whether he has a mental health concern or if he’s facing normal adjustments to college life. In the ideal situation, here are the ways Gonzaga could help John.
- John could check out the Wellness Toolbox available on the website of Gonzaga’s Center for Cura Personalis. Here, he can complete questionnaires (screening tools), watch videos on a variety of topics and even download apps that help a person cope with grief, learn tools to manage emotions or connect with others.
“These tools are built for college students and may help a person gain better insight into what they are feeling and experiencing,” says Yashinsky-Wortman.
- Like Julie, John can reach out to Health & Counseling or the Center for Cura Personalis.
“Talking to someone is key,” Yashinsky-Wortman advises. “They’ll help you get connected to all the resources you need, whether on campus or in the community.”
Federal regulations (HIPAA and FERPA) prohibit a parent from accessing health or academic information on a child who is age 18 or above. If your son or daughter is accessing mental health services, he or she must sign a release of information waiver granting access each time communications should be shared with you. (Standing releases for continual or automatic sharing of information are not available.)
“With a waiver in place, providers on campus and off campus can work together,” says Yashinsky-Wortman. “Without it, we are bound to a student’s confidentiality and are unable to share information with parents.”
Yashinsky-Wortman is quick to point out that the lack of a waiver does not preclude a parent for providing information to the university. If Julie or John in our scenarios above were home for a break and their parents witnessed concerning behavior, the parents may certainly share their observations with Health & Counseling or the Center for Cura Personalis– they just can’t expect that university employees will be able to share information in return without that signed release from the student. (There are exceptions, of course: namely, a student being identified as a risk to him/herself or to others.)
When a Student May Be Suicidal
If a roommate or friend reports that John has made some statements about suicide or Julie admits to recurring suicidal tendencies, “We want to get our eyes on that student directly,” says Yashinsky-Wortman. “We want to confirm where he is, ask questions ourselves, and may call a designated mental health professional who is specially trained and has access to all local resources.”
In Spokane, that designated health agency is Frontier Behavioral Health, which has the ability to place a person at risk in a psychiatric hold if the conditions warrant it, or to connect a person to a less-restrictive environment if he or she is voluntarily seeking additional help. The emergency room at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center is also a resource for students who need psychological evaluation immediately.
In the case of a student being involuntarily committed to psychiatric care, Gonzaga officials would typically alert the parents. “We would absolutely want a family member to be involved and here for support,” says Yashinsky-Wortman.
“See Something, Say Something” applies to everyone
This popular phrase isn’t used just for witnessing sexual assault or other crimes – it can be the rule of thumb for anyone noticing unusual or concerning behavior that could indicate a person is struggling. At Gonzaga, it’s also known as “Zags Help Zags.”
“If you notice something is really different about a person – maybe he is missing classes or her communication seems really off – call someone,” warns Yashinsky-Wortman.
The Center for Cura Personalis, University Ministry and many other campus departments are prepared to respond. If you’re not sure or it’s late at night, Campus Security is available 24/7 and is prepared to connect the appropriate resources.
“Anytime we find out a student is struggling, we are going to reach out and see how we can help,” says Yashinsky-Wortman.
That’s true even if a student is frequently displaying attention-seeking behaviors or acting in a way that makes others believe they are not serious.
“None of us wants to be wrong or wonder if we didn’t do enough,” says Yashinsky-Wortman. “We are going to do our best to respond the same way every time – with care and support in a reasonable fashion, no matter how many previous attempts or episodes there may have been.”
She adds, “Our worst nightmare is a student death. We never want to see that happen.”
When the Worst Happens
Sadly, student deaths do happen. And when they do, a massive support team across the Gonzaga campus is ready to respond and to help students grieve and cope.
Following a student’s death last year, teams of chaplains and mental health professionals were onsite within mere minutes. Later that same day, University Ministry held a vigil and the chapel was packed with students seeking comfort and community. The Center for Cura Personalis was immediately available, as were members of Residence Life and Health & Counseling Services.
The biggest challenge and the ongoing conversation in higher education circles is on how to communicate with students during these times of crises. With social media, students hear and see multiple accounts of an incident before facts can be verified, and before a university can respond to the student community, the wishes of the deceased person’s family must be confirmed first.
Yashinsky-Wortman says, “We strive to communicate with students in a way that is honest, caring, and providing of support and resources. We want to honor everyone involved—the student’s family, friends, and our university community while also helping our students feel supported in the many emotions they will experience and different ways they may grieve.”
Do you need to talk with a professional?
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255)
24/7 support from a crisis counselor nearest to you