New book helps staff members identify, and comfort, students in need of support

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Claudia Wheatley
mental health framework graphic

When Tom Keane heard Cornell had a new handbook to help employees recognize and respond to student stress, he got one for every member of his office.

"Staff understand that lending a hand or a set of ears to someone in distress can only help the situation," said Keane, director of financial aid for scholarships and policy analysis. "The handbook reminds us that we not only have permission to help -- even if the help is just to let your supervisor know you observed a student in distress -- but that we also have a responsibility to help."

Some 3,000 copies of the publication, "Recognizing and Responding to Students in Distress: a Staff Handbook," are being distributed to all staff who have contact with students. A PDF of the handbook is available online, and an iPhone app is in the works.

"The hope is to help employees understand that every interaction that they have with students counts -- simple things like remembering a student's name, a friendly hello to show that they care," said Assistant Dean of Students Casey Carr, who wrote the manual.

The handbook is a contribution to Cornell's comprehensive mental health framework -- seven objectives that take cues from the best practices in the field (see chart). They consist of infrastructure, services and actions that help students thrive, support those at risk and protect those in crisis, said Tim Marchell, Gannett Health Services' director of mental health initiatives. The staff handbook is part of Cornell's objective of identifying people in need of care.

This comprehensive approach has assumed greater importance in response to student stress stemming from social and academic pressures. The University of California's annual survey of freshmen nationwide reported in January that the emotional health of college freshmen has declined to the lowest level since data collection began 25 years ago.

The handbook's opening section describes indicators of distress, appropriate ways to respond and Cornell's support network. Other sections describe how staff can promote student well-being, and how students might be struggling with academic and other concerns, mental health issues and traumatic experiences. "I tried to make [the handbook] as concrete and usable as possible," Carr said.

The manual, which draws much of its information from staff members, is replete with quotes that illustrate best practices. For example, Associate Dean of Students Travis Apgar recounts in the handbook seeing a student talking on her cell phone and crying. "I pulled my car over, introduced myself and asked if she was okay. We spoke for a few minutes. She said how much she appreciated that I would go out of my way to check on her even though I didn't know her." Gymnastics coaches Melanie Dilliplane and Paul Beckwith were among several staff members who helped Kaitlin Hardy '12 get her life back on track after being sidelined by epilepsy.

The staff manual is the second in a series of three. The first, for faculty, came out about a year ago. Cornell has offered it to other colleges and universities to adapt to their needs; Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Tufts and others have taken Cornell up on the offer. A third handbook, for families, is due out in the fall.

"Ideally students will get the help they need -- a diagnosis, treatment -- before they graduate so they can learn to manage while they are here and go on to have productive lives beyond Cornell," said Kent Hubbell '67, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students.

"I hope I don't need to refer to the handbook too often, but I'm glad I have it," Keane added.


Cornell identifies people in need of care

Cornell identifies people in need of care in many ways. Some of the formal strategies include:

• Notice and Respond: Training and extensive online materials and resources are designed to assist for faculty, staff and students notice and respond to others in distress;

• Faculty handbook: provides information on signs of distress and mental illness and strategies for promoting student well-being in the academic environment;

• Consultation and intervention: Gannett Health Services staff members provide guidance to faculty and staff concerned about distressed students and coordinate interventions;

• Mental health screenings: counseling and resources for first-year and transfer students who self-identify mental health concerns and/or treatment and for medical patients who indicate distress;

• BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students): a service for students who want to assess their alcohol and other drug use;

• Alert Team: staff members meet weekly to discuss situations (often pre-crisis) involving students whose behavior or well-being is of concern to faculty or staff;

• Professional Academic Advising Leaders (PAAL): Staff members from academic advising offices within undergraduate colleges/schools coordinate strategies and share best practices related to student support;

• Victim Advocacy Program: supports victims of crimes or other traumatic experiences.

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