Citywide health, well-being consortium gathers experts to improve student mental health

July 24, 2023
Blonde woman in dress clothes stands behind a podium. There are two screens behind her that say small group discussion.
The Jed Foundation’s Leah Finch was the keynote speaker at the first Charleston Student Health and Well-being Consortium conference at MUSC. Photos by Cindy Abole

What happens when student health care advocates, mental health counselors, faculty, student services staff and legal experts gather with a unified purpose to integrate student health and well-being best practices into academic curriculums while also improving outcomes? 

This opportunity occurred in mid-May on the MUSC campus as approximately 135 attendees shared ideas, connected with colleagues and supporters and discussed best practices through the Charleston Student Health and Well-being Consortium – an alliance involving three of Charleston’s higher education institutions: College of Charleston, The Citadel and Medical University of South Carolina. The event was hosted by MUSC’s Office of Education Innovation and Student Life and supported by all three institutions. The consortium is committed to improving student health and well-being in higher education. 

Formed by Gigi Smith, Ph.D., R.N., associate provost for Education Innovation and Student Life in 2022 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the consortium sponsored its first conference on May 23. It featured themed sessions and panel discussions focused on social media and effective student communications, best mental health practices and resources, student health and legal topics with a Q&A and review. 

Smith introduced the event’s keynote speaker, Leah Finch, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and senior campus advisor at The Jed Foundation in New York City. Finch shared her expertise and experiences as a mental health consultant, therapist and educator and other insights during her keynote address titled “Status of Student Mental Health in Higher Education” and in other sessions throughout the day.

The Jed Foundation, established in 2000, was created by Phil and Donna Satow after they lost their son, Jed, to suicide in college. The foundation was created to support suicide prevention efforts on college campuses. It is recognized as the leading organization dedicated to teen and young adult mental health with programs that help students to navigate emotional challenges and prepare for adulthood and beyond.

Finch outlined the Jed Foundation’s mission to collaborate with high schools, colleges and universities to establish policies and create a culture that protects students, builds life skills and creates strong safety nets for struggling students.

People face each other during a discussion. Two are women. One is a man wearing a blue turban and a suit. 
Participants take part in small group discussions to solve hypothetical cases in the Charleston Student Health and Well-being Consortium.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health issues had a significant impact on college students. Students struggled with remote learning, challenges with social isolation and increased stress and anxiety. Colleges had to learn to adapt to provide student support. According to the spring 2022 American Colleges of Health Association National Health Assessment, which provides a snapshot of the mental health landscape in American colleges, 34.6% of students were diagnosed with anxiety, 26.9% of students were diagnosed with depression and 32.5% students had thoughts of suicide in the preceding year. 

“Today’s landscape for mental health is both complex and rapidly evolving,” said Finch, explaining that student demographics at colleges and universities have changed with increases in first-generation, low-income and LGTBQ students as well as students of color. “These changes combined with environmental and social factors have led to increases in student mental health trends, such as rising rates of anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. In turn, this has affected college counseling centers who responded to increased demands, straining and impacting resources, operations and the ability to provide timely responsive care.”

Finch emphasized that not only were college faculties and staff members burdened while managing expanded student stressors and needs on campuses, they also were handling their own personal and family stressors.

What’s needed in this post-pandemic period of time, according to Finch, is for campuses to embrace a comprehensive and holistic approach on an institutional level that goes beyond providing mental health counseling and support services to students.

“There’s a role that everyone on campus can play when it relates to student mental health,” Finch said. “The mental health landscape is multifaceted and requires a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach to address the diverse needs of students, faculty and staff.”

Four young women are seated facing an audience. The one on the far right is gesturing as she speaks. 
Students from MUSC, College of Charleston and The Citadel shared their opinions and experiences in a student health panel.

She recommends involving multiple stakeholders to address broader systemic factors, such as an institution’s campus culture, academic pressures, policies and procedures, access to resources and socio-economic inequities to address student mental health concerns and outcomes.

“That combined with a clear strategic direction, coordinated data collation and post-evaluation can provide better support for the mental health and well-being of faculty, students and staff,” Finch said.

The first session highlighted how social media can be used to share health and well-being resources with students. Another session shared student mental health resources and counseling best practices by licensed counselors, therapists and educators. Session leaders spoke about current challenges and trends that they were facing at their respective institutions, reviewed and discussed case studies and answered questions.

A highlight of the conference was the midday student health panel, which featured a Q&A session with six current and recently graduated students from the three participating institutions. The students responded to questions relating to their student well-being experiences, mental help support and resources.

Four women face each other in an auditorium for a discussion. 
Dr. Alice Libet and members of MUSC’s Counseling and Psychological Services team discuss a case study during the conference.

Taylor Ticer is a doctoral student in MUSC’s College of Graduate Studies. She spoke positively about the student resources available through MUSC’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) program that were presented to her and her peers in a mandatory CAPS presentation sponsored by her college. CAPS representatives stressed that actively enrolled students incur no charges for CAPS appointments, regardless of what type of insurance coverage they have. 

According to Ticer, the CAPS program does a good job of breaking the stigma around mental health for students seeking therapy. “The CAPS program is a benefit for any student on campus who needs it. It’s been very helpful to me,” she said. 

A Citadel graduate who's now an MUSC medical student, Ramsha Shams, noted how both The Citadel and MUSC provide different resources in caring for their students' well-being. For improvements, she hopes CAPS can provide more off-campus resources as well as targeted promotion of student resources especially around the holidays, exam times and graduation when students are particularly stressed and can utilize these coping tools and support.

Smith summarized the significance of this inaugural gathering and the consortium’s overall goals.

“The importance of focusing on student health and well-being is critical to ensure our students not only have a positive academic experience but also a positive personal journey while at MUSC. We know suicide is currently the second leading cause of death among college students. As per our charter for the Consortium, our goal is early identification and treatment to promote better life outcomes and the ability to succeed in an academic program. In addition, it is important to provide all students with knowledge of coping skills and available resources, which promote health and academic success,” Smith said. 

Charleston Health and Well-being Consortium Members

In addition to Smith, members include; Ann Almasi-Bush, associate vice president for Student Well-being and dean of students, College of Charleston; Alicia Caudill, Ph.D., executive vice president for Student Affairs, College of Charleston; Capt. Maggie Hill, student services manager and student success advisor, The Citadel; and Col. John Robinson Jr., J.D., executive director of Student Affairs and Academic Services, The Citadel.

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