Tackling Mental Health on a College Campus

16 months. 16 months of Zoom meetings. 16 months of canceled events. 16 months of being in constant crisis mode. The 2020-2021 school year will be a memory we will never forget. 

Do we offer in-person classes? Are we going to be hybrid? How will we handle the repercussions of our decisions and those around us? We thought of every scenario that could happen, and we told ourselves that it couldn’t get much worse than a pandemic. 

But it did – we were wrong.  

The spring semester was already beginning to see its challenges on the campus of West Virginia University. We were smiling through the pain, but COVID-19 case after COVID-19 case and the constant changes from the CDC were starting to wear every single person down on our campus. We talked about mental health and the importance of seeking help, but nothing could have prepared us for a death of a student by suicide. In April, a student jumped from a multi-story parking garage next to our campus and died from the injuries he suffered. 

As our President Gordon Gee has said in the past, the death of a student is the single-most saddening thing that can happen on a University campus. It hurt us all and compacted much of the frustration, disappointment and sadness we all felt over the last 16 months. 

At the Mountaineer Parents Club, we knew we would be facing a lot of pain, suffering, and negativity from every direction. You learn, when working with the families, to prepared for every single situation – even death.

Once the news hit social media, the outrage sparked. Parents blamed WVU. Employees criticized us. Students hated us. No one knew the details of the situation, but everyone felt free to comment with their own opinions, not considering (or caring) that the family and friends of the deceased student would be on social media, as well.   

In this type of situation –  one that you can’t prevent –  we grieved internally and got to work. 

  1. We spent time reading through our Official WVU Facebook groups. We were careful with how we answered questions. We encouraged empathetic, kind conversations among families. It was important that we listened in these moments – to everything. 
  2. We reassured families we were doing everything we could for their students, whether that was meeting with students ourselves, helping students seek help or encouraging families to come to campus to send time with their student. 
  3. We checked on our campus partners at the Carruth Center for Psychological and Psychiatric Services. They were taking the biggest hit. At the end of the day, their mental health is just as important. Losing a student is never easy. The Parents Club even purchased them snacks to help them during their long days and nights. 
  4. Above all, we empathized. We listened and were careful on how we approached the subject of seeking help and services. It was important that we rode the wave of emotions in an appropriate way, not over- or underreacting at any given time (easier said that done – and we may have not been perfect each time but we learned along the way).
  5. The University is working on building a bigger and stronger mental health resources for our students, staff, and faculty. They are listening to students who are voicing their thoughts and opinions and they are committed to making changes. 
  6. We were very lucky that ahead of the pandemic we had already focused on communicating safety and wellness information to our parents. We even have a section on our safety website just for parents. This came in handy and continues to be a tremendously valuable resource prior to, during and after a crisis like this. 

As we dive into returning to normal life, I challenge you to think about your institution’s stance on mental health. Where are you at mentally? Where are your parents at mentally? Moving forward, it’s important to have conversations with your counseling center staff to learn more about their services. Where do their services extend – students, staff, faculty? Think about mental health outreach to your parents. Are their steps parents can take to have informed, and genuine conversations with their students? 

Finally, go into this new world knowing that the return to normalcy is going to be odd. We don’t know where mental health concerns will lie with students, so it’s important to continue to educate yourself on mental health best practices. 

Rickie Huffman is the Marketing Strategist for Admissions and the Mountaineer Parents Club at West Virginia University.

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