Content Warning: mentions of suicide, depression
Note: In light of Rowan’s closure in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, I want to begin this article by impressing that there are Rowan-based mental health resources available online. One-on-one appointments can still be made by contacting 856-256-4333. These appointments are likely going to be held through WebEx - an online service for video-chatting with clinicians, which will be connected to the Wellness Center’s electronic health records system. Resources and services still available during this outbreak can be found at their respective linked pages. The campus crisis hotline is also still active at 856-256-4911, where Public Safety can direct you to a counselor on call. The national suicide hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
On February 21, Jamie Tworkowski--the founder of mental health awareness group To Write Love on Her Arms--spoke here at Rowan University to discuss the prevailing stigmas surrounding mental health disorders. The Edelman College of Communications and Creative Arts’s own Dean Tweedie was in attendance, representing our college by participating in a conversation that has rarely been as pressing as it is today. After the two tragic suicides that rocked our campus last year, Rowan’s Wellness Center and University president Dr. Houshmand led a public forum addressing student concerns about the severity of untreated mental health issues within the community. Many students at the forum argued that the university was ill-equipped to care for students’ mental health. In light of the dire situation facing our campus, Writing Arts students deserve to know more about what our department has been doing to create a safer environment for those of us who may be struggling to get by.
Despite the enormity of this task, Rowan’s Writing Arts Department has been a worthy case-study in how to take the first steps in affecting major change after a crisis. Dr. Amy Woodworth (coordinator of our First-Year Writing Program) has been at the forefront of helping the Writing Arts department respond to the ongoing mental health crisis. For example, she arranged three mental-health related meetings within the past several months. A Brown Bag meeting last November that covered mental health issues was followed by two Mental Health First Aid trainings--the first one was also held in November, the second in January. These eight-hour long training sessions were geared to prepare professors for how to safely aid a student who needs professional help for their mental well-being. Each of these Mental Health First Aid trainings had thirty Writing Arts faculty in attendance.
“The focus was primarily suicide and suicide prevention,” said Dr. Woodworth. But the first aid meetings also presented startling data about the state of mental health among college students today. Some of the shared data included the following:
These two trainings were led by Dr. Mandi Dorrell, another Writing Arts instructor who has a certification in mental health intervention. She trained Writing Arts faculty how to properly handle a situation where a student needs to be led to professional help. This could mean walking the student over to the Wellness Center, or waiting with the student until professional help can arrive.
“Don’t leave them alone,” Dr. Woodworth reiterated from the Brown Bag workshops. If a student is planning on hurting themselves, it’s of the utmost importance to give them “a warm hand-off” to the appropriate mental health professionals.
“Kinda like ‘regular’ first aid,” said Woodworth. “If you were injured and had cut yourself on something, I may be able to stop the bleeding but the goal is to find a professional to stitch you up. A professor’s goal should be to provide struggling students assistance in the meantime.”
“Writing Arts staff have been very open to mental-health training,” said Brown Bag leader Dr. Mandi Dorrell, who is also the lead member of Rowan’s Active Minds chapter--a nationwide organization of 500+ college campuses dedicated to de-stigmatizing mental health concerns. Founded in 2003, Active Minds has been committed to spreading the word that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. The organization has impacted thousands of students nation-wide. It’s most popular outreach program being Send Silence Packing, a travelling exhibit of stories that students have shared about their mental health, which anyone can participate in.
Attendance at Rowan’s Active Minds meetings has risen within the past year, mainly to what Dorrell credits as a “growing awareness” on campus about the importance of mental well-being. Having worked at Rowan and several other educational institutions for many years, Dorrell said that she’s noticed an improvement in how mental health issues are being treated by administrators and educators but “it can still be better.” Rowan’s Active Minds chapter can be accessed through ProfLink for any interested students.
One of the ways that faculty members like Dr. Dorrell have been trying to ensure long-lasting change is by involving themselves in groups such as The Wellbeing Committee here on Rowan’s campus. An incredibly new group--Dorrell told me that their first meeting was as recent as this past February--this committee is a multi-major collective of students and faculty members dedicated to documenting the observed “pros and cons” of Rowan’s developing responses to mental health concerns. The Wellbeing Committee will serve as Rowan’s evidence-based research group for mental health on campus, recognizing the importance of maintaining an active observance on how Rowan can continue to improve in the future.
Writing Arts has also been working to create a permanent change in how staff will respond to mental health concerns. Born from Rowan’s recent Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the Diversity Council is a committee within the Writing Arts department with an aim for turning the department into a more inclusive space. Started by professor Rachel Shapiro, nearly half of the Writing Arts faculty are active members on the council.
“Our major goal is to make … small achievable goals that lead to bigger changes to help with equity in our department,” said Writing Arts professor Amanda Haruch. These changes are discussed and decided on at monthly diversity committee meetings, and include professional development sessions during department meetings. So far these development sessions have focused on how staff can accommodate students with dyslexia and how to have uncomfortable conversations about race in the classroom. In addition to this, the Writing Arts professors have created a website for writing instructors that contains resources about how to accommodate student issues related to mental health. The Diversity Council has also been discussing plans to produce and distribute packets, booklets, and bookmarks that contain information about mental health resources on and off campus. This literature is meant to help professors give pre-prepared information to students who are struggling to find the care that they need.
Thoroughly spreading information has been one of the most important goals for improving mental health conditions on campus. Dr. Woodworth and Dr. Dorrell each said that the Mental Health forum in December illuminated how desperately the student body needed to be informed about resources that were available to them if they were experiencing a crisis. “Many students didn’t know that most of the well-being resources on campus even existed,” said Dorrell. She said that a significant chunk of time was spent during the forum trying to locate information gaps that existed between the student body and university administration. As she stated, the gaps were severe. “We realized that we needed to really push this information out there in a better way,” she explained.
One possible solution to spreading resource information has been the “one-stop-shop” Student Resource Guide created for first-year writing courses at Rowan. Although the guide has technically existed for about three years, Dr. Woodworth said professors have started putting links to this guide onto their Blackboard pages. “We used to put the link into our syllabi, but we realized no one was finding the guide there,” she said.
Now more than ever, the urgency behind making this guide as accessible as possible is high. Pulling up the student resource page onto her computer (which I had never seen before that day, despite being in my fourth semester at this university), Dr. Woodworth showed me the useful links that this guide provided. On this page you can find information about health and wellness resources both on and off campus, resources for food insecurity, advice for academic troubles, and links to campus groups that can assist students with social or medical troubles.
While combating mental health crises may seem like an uphill battle, there are staff within the Writing Arts department and the wider university who have been making significant steps forward in solving the issue. “Needing to write that essay is nowhere near as important as your personal well being,” said Dr. Woodworth towards the end of our conversation, a sentiment that is shared among her Writing Arts colleagues. “We want our students to learn, but frankly you can always retake Comp II,” Woodworth continued, “you only have one shot at life.”