Support grows for responding to student well-being needs

Reflecting a national trend that predates the pandemic but has accelerated in its wake, mental health needs are greater than ever among Iowa State students. In response, faculty and staff have a new resource for helping students (and colleagues) who may be struggling, one of a variety of trainings this summer focused on identifying and addressing well-being concerns.

Bolstering programs that give faculty and staff guidance and resources to respond to mental health issues is essential, student wellness director Brian Vanderheyden said. Broadly building that capacity recognizes that efforts to improve student well-being need to extend across campus, beyond units specifically geared toward health and wellness. Ideally, support for seeking help can stem from relationships with instructors, advisors and student affairs staff. And a peer is often a student's first source for advice, which is why trainings also are available to students.

"One person in an office can't impact the entire system that affects well-being," Vanderheyden said. "We have to engage in more of a public health, systemwide approach."

New training offered

A program designed with that broader approach in mind is the new training and screening tools offered through Cyclone Support, which launched last fall as a campaign to promote the mental health resources available to students.

The 90-minute Cyclone Support training is designed to give faculty and staff practical and tangible tools to help students identify mental health and well-being needs earlier and connect them with resources, Vanderheyden said. The training and the companion toolkit use evidence-based practices grounded in the screening, brief intervention and referral to treatment (SBIRT) model.

Participants learn how to use the Cyclone Support self-assessment tool, which screens for concerns in a dozen different well-being areas, and embed it in their regular contact with students. They also receive tips -- including suggested questions, statements and responses -- for motivating students to seek help, along with an overview of the varying levels of support from self-help apps and peer-based services up to more specialized treatment options.

"Not every student needs individual counseling," Vanderheyden said.

The SBIRT model provides a useful framework for brief discussions faculty and staff have with students about well-being issues, he said.

"It's not about adding work for people. It's more about doing it differently. Faculty and staff are already meeting with students and having conversations like these. I hear about them all the time," he said.

Cyclone Support training sessions in 3580 Memorial Union are scheduled for July 13 and 29 (10:30 a.m.-noon) and Aug. 2 (2:30-4 p.m.). Sign up or request the training for a group on the student student health and wellness website.

Spiking concerns

Research consistently shows that student well-being is an important factor in academic success, said student counseling services director Kristen Sievert in a presentation to the Professional and Scientific Council earlier this month. That's evident in tuition appeals and out-of-term withdrawals, 83% of which from 2018 to 2021 had a connection to health or well-being, primarily mental health, she said.

"If a student is not emotionally, mentally, physically, socially well, it's going to be really difficult for them to be academically well and perform to their highest standards," she said.

And unfortunately, perhaps in part due to lingering effects of the pandemic, data from surveys and ISU service providers continue to show mounting concerns about student well-being, Sievert and Vanderheyden said in the presentation.

At the Thielen Student Health Center over the last year, diagnoses of anxiety increased 10% and diagnoses of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder increased 31%. In fall 2021, 52% of psychiatric visits to the center were classified as "complex," compared to 19% the year before. The number of cases at student counseling services that required the care management team, a higher level of support, increased to 162 in 2021, up from 105 in 2019 and 138 in 2020.

A national health assessment this fall showed that ISU students, 1,035 of who participated in the survey, aren't alone in struggling. Nearly four out of five ISU respondents said the pandemic increased their overall levels of stress.

"Students are struggling with their mental health. They're having a hard time," Sievert said.

Other training options

Vanderheyden said the spike in mental health issues was clear right away last fall and was the impetus of the Cyclone Support program.

"We were anticipating an increased level of student well-being needs, but it was kind of like, 'Holy cow, this is a lot,'" he said.  

But the trend toward a greater need for mental health services has been present for years. A three-year grant Iowa State received in 2018 helped produce two other mental health support trainings available to faculty and staff this summer, QPR and RESPOND, both of which focus on suicide prevention.

QPR, which stands for question, persuade and refer, is a one-hour course focused on identifying the warning signs of a suicide crisis and how to respond. No training times are set for the summer, but it is available by request for groups. RESPOND is a more in-depth 8-hour program that will be offered June 8 and 15 and July 7 and 12 (8 a.m.- 4 p.m., Hach Hall auditorium). Register or request trainings online.

ISU WorkLife also is hosting a daylong mental health training opportunity for faculty and staff this summer. Mental Health First Aid focuses on identifying, understanding and responding to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders. Register online for the training July 27 (8 a.m.-5 p.m., conference room, 4-H Building).

All three programs have similarities, including promoting effective strategies to encourage connection such as active listening and asking open-ended questions, Vanderheyden said. The trainings are useful for encouraging colleagues to seek needed help, too.  

"They're all about your role in helping a person in distress. They're all evidence-based, and they're all great," he said.