BOV grant to help bolster University-wide approach to mental health

by Chuck Gordon

Even at a small, nurturing university, mental health can present hurdles for students.

“We do see a lot of anxiety,” says Dr. Corrine Harris, director of the Counseling Center at Wingate. “That’s been interesting to me as a therapist, that a lot of people have struggles with either social anxiety or just generalized anxiety, where it makes it hard for them to get work done.”

A number of students ‒ at Wingate and across the country ‒ feel stress, experience depression or, in worst-case scenarios, have suicidal thoughts. The number of visits to the Counseling Center has been increasing every year, and the Covid-19 pandemic only made the situation worse, with students’ anxiety rising as the pandemic made uncertainty the default state of mind for many.

Corrine Harris head shot

This year, Harris decided to do something about it. Thanks in part to a $10,000 grant from the Board of Visitors, Wingate is teaming up with the Jed Foundation to assess and bolster the University’s campuswide preparedness for dealing with mental-health issues.

Even just since she graduated from the University of Alabama, in the dawn of the Facebook age, Harris has noticed a marked difference in students’ social habits. Their propensity to get a driver’s license or a part-time job is lower, so their face-to-face social interactions are more limited. Their anxiety in social situations is higher, especially when they go from primarily online interactions to living in a residence hall.

Then there are the perils of social media.

“It can heighten feelings of worthlessness and heightens how you compare yourself to other people and how connected you feel to other people,” Harris says. “It’s very hard when you’re comparing yourself to influencers whose job it is to look perfect online, and that’s not your reality. Or you see your friends hanging out and you wonder why you weren’t invited.”

Such widespread anxiety presents problems at every university in the world, and it’s the Jed Foundation’s mission to better arm schools to combat it. Jed helps colleges and universities assess their weaknesses, evaluate their mental-health systems, and make campuswide changes.

The 18-month program won’t officially begin until spring 2022, but the Counseling Center will conduct a student mental-health survey during the fall semester to gather some baseline data. In the spring, Jed assessors will come to campus to meet with Harris and a multidisciplinary working group featuring employees from Student Life, Residence Life, Campus Safety and other departments on campus, in addition to members of the faculty. Jed will give them the tools to probe for weak points and to come up with solutions to strengthen Wingate’s ability to help students. They will also provide programming and other resources for Wingate to use to ensure students’ positive mental health.

“I do think we have great people with great ideas and great experience here at Wingate,” Harris says. “So I think there’s probably already a lot of good things that we’re doing. But I think there’s more that we could learn or just better ways we could collaborate across campus to make things a little more seamless.”

Harris says the Jed Foundation and the working group will look at a range of areas, including “how the Counseling Center works with other campus partners to determine how we identify students who are at risk, how our students are accessing help when they need it, how connected our students are to each other and campus, what kind of life-skills programs we have, how safe campus is.”

For Harris, the program’s focus on making mental health an issue for the entire campus to work on is especially valuable, and one that should make for a healthier student body. It could also help raise retention rates.

“Campus mental health, to me, needs to be a campuswide responsibility and awareness, not just a Counseling Center piece,” she says. “I don’t think a lot of people know this, but we have suicide attempts in the campus population every year. But if we don’t have trained faculty and staff, we’re missing a great awareness piece that has more interaction. The counseling center only sees 30 percent of our student population. That’s 70 percent that could have struggles that we don’t come in contact with.

“I think Jed coming in will help us create a campuswide model that can get everyone to buy in, from multiple levels ‒ staff, faculty, students ‒ and work to be a better community.”

Harris combined the $10,000 from the Board of Visitors with a scholarship provided by a Jed corporate partner to cover the cost of the program. Wingate’s Board of Visitors awarded eight grants totaling $50,252 this year.

July 30, 2021