Emerson committed to mental wellness in new four-year plan


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By Max Carter, Staff Writer

Emerson enacted a four-year plan in the fall semester in collaboration with the JED Foundation aimed at bolstering mental health resources and services at the school after officials found a high percentage of depression, anxiety, and self-harm among students after completing a survey in June.  

According to the Healthy Minds Study, 39 percent of students at the college Emerson reported struggling with depression, with 21 percent suffering from major depression in a 2018 survey. 34 percent reported having an anxiety disorder and 32 percent reported having inflicted self-harm in the past year.

“I was not surprised by the data because we’re seeing it all the time in our office,” Director of Emerson Counseling and Psychological Services Elise Harrison said. “I do think there has been an increase in anxiety and depression, definitely an increase in suicidal ideation, self-harm. Everywhere.”

The JED Campus initiative works with higher-ed institutions around the country to address  mental health needs of students. Emerson’s case manager at JED Campus Diana Cusumano said they based their recommendations on data gathered from a battery of tests JED has conducted since 2016 when Emerson was awarded a Hillman Family Foundation grant to fund the partnership. The college announced the grant publicly in 2019. 

The summary analyzes data from the Healthy Minds Study conducted in spring 2018, a self-assessment of Emerson’s approach to mental health, and a JED Campus pilot program examining the mental health experience of people of color specifically. 

Harrison is part of the interdisciplinary team of five Emerson staff members who laid out the foundation of a long-term plan for the school in June in an executive summary of JED’s recommendations.

High stress, mounting career pressures, and feelings of isolation are causing more students to seek mental health services at Emerson, Harrison told The Beacon. She and the rest of the JED workgroup at Emerson prioritized social connectedness, mental health screenings, care coordination between departments, and self harm prevention as high priorities in their report. 

The college has begun addressing some of these goals already. Harrison said she is working with the Center for Health and Wellness to create a comprehensive online database of Emerson’s mental health service archipelago. She said she hopes it will be active in 2020, but does not have a specific release date as of yet.

“One of the big things at Emerson… is that we’re a communication school,” Harrison said. “Where’s the communication? There are all kinds of programs going on in little isolated pockets and it was really helpful to start pulling those together so people can tell students.”

Harrison’s office hired a new psychologist in August, filling a position that was vacant for over a year, and extended counseling hours for students. She also emphasized that community members’ roles is a crucial front line in mental health care. 

The JED workgroup calls for “gatekeeper training” in their executive summary. Harrison explained this includes preparing students, faculty, and staff to identify, reach out to, and refer others to available resources and services. 

“There are a lot of students out there that are still not getting help and really need more services and support,” she said.

Assistant Vice President of Student Success Sharon Duffy formed part of the committee alongside Harrison and said Emerson has done a lot to create a physically safer space for students. 

“A lot of institutions will come into this because of a string of student overdoses or suicides and, knocking on everything, we were coming at this from a place of wanting to be proactive,” Duffy said in an interview. “We don’t want to wait for a crisis to happen to take action.”

She told The Beacon the school installed break-away rods in closets over the summer to prevent suicide attempts. The college also announced the addition Medication Disposal Drop Boxes where students can deposit prescription and over-the-counter drugs they won’t use. Duffy and other four faculty members also pushed Emerson to create more multi-purpose spaces where students could gather to do work and be social.

“Being an urban campus space, our communities are spread out in so many different places and so space was always an issue, was always a concern,” Duffy said. “These were plans that were on the table, but the JED survey was able to kind of tip it over to say 172 needs to be a student-centered engagement space.”

Senior JED Campus Advisor Diana Cusumano oversees Emerson as part of her caseload and she commended President M. Lee Pelton for being proactive in approaching JED.

“More presidents are having these conversations and there’s more presidential convenings these days around mental health and I think that’s a really good sign,” Cusumano said in an interview with The Beacon.

Cusumano said Emerson engages seriously with the process and recommendations. She applauded Emerson for introducing mental health-specific leaves of absence, something most other schools have yet to do and said Emerson’s high reports of anxiety and depression aren’t entirely outside the trend in higher-ed institutions. 

“Fear of failure and impostor syndrome tend to be something I heard a lot of from Emerson students, which ties in nationally with what we see at a lot of high-performing schools,” Cusumano said in an interview with The Beacon.

Emerson will participate in the Healthy Minds Study again in the Spring 2020 and continue to work with JED consultants over the next four years until JED will require Emerson to conduct another self-assessment. 

“The overarching of all of this is that we want our community to be well so that [students] can be successful in their academic and in their personal pursuits,” Duffy said.