New Boston University Program Teaches How to Help Students with Mental Health Issues

Terriers Connect trains faculty, staff, peers to be proactive. First responders aren’t always police and firefighters who race to the scene with lights and sirens. For students facing mental health issues, the first person approached for help may be a peer, a faculty member, an RA, a coach, or an administrator. Now a new BU program is teaching those gatekeepers (defined as people in a position to recognize a crisis and the warning signs that someone may be contemplating suicide) to respond more effectively and confidently as they usher students into care.

“Faculty, staff, and students all call us saying, ‘What do I do?’” says Carrie Landa, the director of Behavioral Medicine at Student Health Services. “They’re asked by people in need all the time, and they struggle with how to have those conversations and how to encourage someone to get help when they need it.”

Behavioral Medicine and the Dean of Students office are cosponsoring the initiative, the Terriers Connect program, whose first training session last Friday drew 31 people from across campus.

“This isn’t about delivering mental health services. These people are not training to be clinicians or therapists,” Landa says. “What we are training people to do is recognize signs and know the appropriate responses and resources.”

At BU, as at other universities, the mental health of students has become a critical issue. The number of students in crisis going to Behavioral Medicine for help has more than doubled, from 290 in the 2010–2011 academic year to 647 last year. Although study results vary widely, a 2014 report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health showed that about 20 percent of college students had considered suicide in the past year.

The BU program, based on the 10-year-old Campus Connect program at Syracuse University, hopes to help by training staff from many departments to identify students in crisis and to guide those students smoothly to the appropriate campus resources. The Syracuse model is used on nearly 200 other campuses in the United States and Canada. Friday’s daylong session was run by program founder Cory Wallack, director of the Syracuse University Counseling Center.

Students can face a wide variety of mental health issues, from feeling overwhelmed by classwork or a traumatic breakup to eating disorders and other serious mental health problems. “What we’re often finding is that students who come for help are so distressed that they’ve already stopped going to class or stopped socializing or stopped taking care of themselves,” says Landa. “So the idea here is to be more proactive about getting treatment.”

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