A Texas-Sized System of Support for College Student Health and Safety

The Board of Regents has a history of allocating funding to improve students’ health and academic success, including nearly $6 million in 2018.

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By Susan Kirtz, MPH
Managing Editor, Texas Health Journal
Director of Special Projects, Center for Health Communication
The University of Texas at Austin

 
 

Over the past four years, the 24/7 crisis line available to students at institutions across The University of Texas System has received 7,258 calls from students in distress and seeking help with an immediate personal crisis, including thoughts of suicide. Of these, 125 were life-saving calls.

In February 2018, the Board of Regents voted to allocate nearly $6 million to support a broad range of student safety, mental health and wellness initiatives at all 14 institutions – including the crisis line.

Brittany Jewell

Brittany Jewell

“One of the biggest health issues facing undergraduate students is awareness of and access to services they may not have needed when they lived at home, or that their parents may have taken care of for them,” says Brittany Jewell, Student Regent for the Board of Regents and a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at UTHealth in Houston. “Simple health issues can really derail a semester, especially if you’re out for a couple of weeks. If we can keep our students healthy, we can keep them in the classroom.”

A History of Student Support

The recent funding is just the latest in a line of strong commitments from the UT System to the cause of student safety and wellness.

In 2012, the Board of Regents became the first in the country to create and fund collegiate recovery centers system-wide to help students in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction or seeking recovery to have a drug-and alcohol-free college experience.

In 2014, they allocated more than $2.5 million in funding for the after-hours crisis line and a bystander intervention initiative aimed at addressing a range of student health issues including sexual assault, drug overdose, suicide, and hazing.

In 2015, the Board authorized $2.4 million to continue funding and expanding alcohol prevention, education and recovery programs at all UT academic campuses. These programs include AlcoholEdu and Sexual Assault Prevention for Undergraduates (SAPU), a web-based alcohol education and sexual assault prevention training required of all incoming students, along with Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS), an evidence-based early intervention for students who have experienced negative consequences associated with high-risk drinking.

Dr. Wanda Mercer

Dr. Wanda Mercer

As with many successful programs aimed at college students, the idea originated with the students themselves. More than five years ago, the UT System Student Advisory Council, overseen by Dr. Wanda Mercer, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, expressed its concerns to the Board of Regents about the prevalence of mental health issues among students, along with the stigma often associated with seeking care.

“The students took their responsibility to care for each other very seriously,” says Mercer. “They also asked us to take the System’s responsibility seriously.”

In response, then-Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa convened a Task Force on Mental Health and Safety with student, faculty, and staff representatives. It was charged with “reviewing current campus practices to increase the probability that worrisome student behavior is identified and that appropriate institutional responses can be initiated.” The task force released a comprehensive report with their recommendations in June 2014. Each of the investments since 2014 is a direct response to the task force report, along with input from students, faculty, and staff across the System.

Dr. Chris Brownson

Dr. Chris Brownson

“These investments demonstrate the high value that our Board of Regents and university presidents place on student health, safety, and success,” says Dr. Chris Brownson, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, Director of the Counseling and Mental Health Center at UT Austin, and the manager of these initiatives for the entire System.

The funds allocated in 2018 are aimed at furthering the success of all previous initiatives. They also provide funding to expand UT Austin’s Thrive at UT app to all UT institutions. This app uses engaging videos, guided exercises, interactive assignments, and text notifications designed to help students integrate healthy behaviors into their daily lives. New services for students are also underway, including:

  • A telehealth video platform that includes mental health modules on anxiety, depression, stress, and substance abuse, along with the capability to do video sessions with a campus mental health professional.

  • A health communication campaign led by the Center for Health Communication at UT Austin, aimed at creating messaging on the intersection of alcohol use and consent.

  • An evidence-based toolkit on engaging men in sexual assault and harassment prevention.

Adaptation

One of the challenges of deploying system-wide initiatives, said Brownson, is that each of the 14 institutions that make up the UT System is unique, with its own campus culture, student demographics, and health needs. In response to this diversity, the nine currently funded initiatives combine a baseline of core elements that are applicable to all campuses with the capacity for customization. Each campus can adapt them in a way that makes sense for their students.

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At UT Austin, for instance, the bystander initiative intervention program is called BeVocal, which is a nod to Bevo, the iconic Texas Longhorn steer. This initiative trains students, faculty, and staff to recognize and respond to issues such as sexual assault, substance abuse, hazing, and suicide.

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At UT San Antonio, the program is named Beaks Up Speak Up, leveraging students’ loyalty to their beloved mascot Rowdy the Roadrunner. However, these two initiatives and others throughout the System share the same definition of bystander intervention, along with the same message about steps to intervention:

  1. Recognize potential harm

  2. Choose to respond

  3. Take action

While customizing programs to 14 diverse campus contexts is essential for success, it presents a challenge for evaluation. To address this, the 2018 funding also included bi-annual implementation of the National College Health Assessment (NCHA) at all UT System schools, along with two experienced evaluators to collect program data, evaluate the results, and help each institution determine the effectiveness of their efforts.

The funds allocated in 2018 run through the 2021 academic year. A number of initiatives are expected to transition to university support, with the option for campuses to continue the programs if they are working for their students.

Why it Matters

“A healthy student is a successful student,” says Brownson. “In order for students to be able to focus on their studies, they have to be safe and mentally well. That’s where we fit in. These initiatives help students to function well in a challenging academic environment.”

Brownson often tells the story of a staff member who completed the bystander intervention training on her campus. A few days later, she happened upon a student who was sitting near the curb of a busy intersection and crying. Remembering her training, the staff member worked up the courage to approach the student.

After sitting and talking together, the student revealed how much he was struggling and that he had even been considering suicide. They called his mother together, and the student ended up seeking and receiving the help he needed.

Student testimonials also provide powerful examples of how collegiate recovery centers provide the support critical to maintaining their sobriety. A student at UT Austin described her experience at the Center for Students in Recovery saying, “The Center for Students in Recovery has been vital to my sobriety. After graduating with my Bachelor's from a different university and being newly sober, moving to Austin was one of the last things I thought would help me along in my recovery. The meetings and people at CSR are incredibly welcoming, loving and understanding, which was just what I needed. I thought graduate school at The University of Texas at Austin was going to be an insurmountable task so early in my sobriety, but through the CSR community I have been offered continual support. I am incredibly grateful to be involved in CSR and look forward to what the future has in store within this community.”