By Julie Kayzerman Editor-in-Chief
In a packed Mayo Concert Hall, students, faculty and staff at the College were asked to stand up if they agreed with the statements being read aloud.
“Please stand if you have ever felt overwhelmed by everything you have to do.”
The entire audience stood.
“You are not alone,” said Dean of Students Angela Chong and Vice President of Student Affairs Amy Hecht alongside the tune of Sheryl Crow’s “I Shall Believe.”
It seems like every time I try to make it right,
It all comes down on me.
With these questions, the audience bravely admitted that they had, at times, felt so anxious that they couldn’t get out of bed. They admitted to knowing people who struggle with mental health issues or addiction. They even stood up to say that they would consider reaching out to a resource for support and pledge themselves as part of the caring community at the College.
Please say honestly you won’t give up on me,
And I shall believe.
With the rain pouring down from dark skies on Thursday, Nov. 19, students could stand up to admit their struggles — without being alone. The next aisle over, they could see their professor standing up to signify feeling the same ways. In the wake of a cluster of tragedies with five deaths by suicide at the College in the past three years, students, faculty and staff stood united at the first-ever Mental Health and Suicide Awareness Town Hall meeting to spark the discussion of mental health.
“We do not sweep things under the rug at The College of New Jersey and we’re ready to have those tough conversations,” Hecht said.
Response to tragedy
The meeting highlighted psychiatrist Dr. Victor Schwartz from the Jed Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes emotional health and suicide prevention, who talked about the issue on a national level. The meeting was then brought down to a local level, in which a discussion panel allowed audience members to share questions and concerns with Chong, Schwartz, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Dr. Mark Forest and Associate Dean of Students Kelly Hennessy.
“We’re thinking about this all the time behind the scenes,” Forest said. “(We’re) trying to develop protocols and procedures, and prevention and intervention and strategies.”
Over the past few years, the College has taken several steps behind the scenes to restructure the way it handles tragedy. The meeting was held, in part, to share with the campus community what the College has been doing in response to the cluster of suicides.
“We realized kind of early on that (we) were doing a lot of work, but we were so busy doing the work that we (were) doing (it) without telling our story,” Chong said.
The Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Task Force was formed in the summer of 2014 with the purpose of developing prevention, intervention and postvention strategies. This task force includes faculty, students and staff from several different organizations, including the TCNJ Clinic, Residential Education, Athletics and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). A Strategic Response Team was formed specifically to handle postvention. The team convenes following a death in the community to determine the best way to notify the campus. The Care Team was established as a campus-wide team that meets biweekly to review student cases related to social, mental health, academic and behavioral concerns. According to Chong, the Care Team is committed to supporting students that are oftentimes faced with difficulties by providing them with vital linkages to both local and on-campus resources. The College also utilizes the Behavior Assessment and Response Team (BART) to assess whether a student is at a significant risk of harm to themselves or to others and take a proactive and collaborative approach in managing situations that might arise, according to Chong. Schwartz spent the day with the different teams, validating their recent work and highlighting areas for improvement.
“We decided that we were really going to re-brand and emphasize that you are all part of a community that really does care about this College,” Hennessy said.
The Care Team, chaired by Hennessy, has already implemented several new practices at the College. There has been a 30 percent increase to staff in CAPS with regular psychiatric hours increasing from four to 20. Chong also reorganized the Office of the Dean of Students and hired a case manager, Noryba Ritman, a trained social worker to handle individual students’ cases. According to Hennessy, the Office of the Dean of Students now acts as a “one-stop-shop” to help point students in the right direction for resources that can be most beneficial to them.
In addition, the Care Team has put signs in the parking garages of Lot 7 and Lot 10 that include resources and the number for the 24/7 NJ Hopeline for suicide prevention for people to call if they need help. The College is also in the process of developing barriers in the parking garages as a way to restrict students’ access to suicide, Chong said.
According to Hecht, the health and wellness of the campus community isn’t just about getting counseling, but rather practicing healthy lifestyles on a daily basis. The College has made several moves in improving the overall health and wellness of the campus community, including building a new recreation center, purchasing new spin bikes and having a nutritionist on campus alongside mindful recipes in Eickhoff Hall to encourage students to eat healthy and exercise — an important part of maintaining mental health. Mindfulness Meditation has been newly emphasized on campus, as well, with meditation classes of different time lengths offered at least five days a week in the Spiritual Center.
Hennessy also introduced the formation of an 099 level course to “talk about health and wellness and how to stay healthy and well especially during stressful times.” She also discussed a “don’t cancel that class” initiative that is in the works for students to have a substitute class on mental health and wellness when a professor can’t make it in. The College is also looking to implement a Health and Wellness certificate program, as well, according to Hennessy. In addition, the Care Team has also designed stickers with resources for students that have been placed in every dorm room on campus. Magnets with more in-depth directions and resources have been distributed to all faculty.
As of late, faculty, staff and several student leaders of organizations have also undergone various trainings on how to deal with mental health issues. Specifically, several faculty and staff members have undergone CONNECT training.
“We’ve probably trained over 300 people on campus, 200 faculty, some students who are in leadership positions and people who have direct interactions with students, for people who deal with students in high-risk situations,” Forest said. The Care Team hopes to reach every single group on campus with these trainings, he added.
The panel then opened up the meeting to students, giving them a platform to voice their concerns or ask questions to the task force. Concerned about the prevalence of suicide-related deaths on campus, students challenged the task force with new suggestions. Other students gave valuable perspectives, speaking from their own struggles with mental health or personal issues with their CAPS experiences.
Other students posed suggestions for the administration to take into consideration.
Senior English and women’s and gender studies double major Jennie Sekanics suggested that the College mandate a line to be put under the integrity policy of each class syllabus with the information for students on who to contact if they feel that their professors are not practicing empathy or prioritizing students’ mental health. According to Hennessy, a line on the syllabus including this information was already approved over the summer to be mandated in upcoming syllabi and will take full effect very soon.
“Of all things, I am grateful for the fact that TCNJ is listening,” Sekanics said. “When we spoke up about the language of the email, it was changed immediately. When we asked for more mental health awareness, TCNJ Cares Week was initiated and run by students who are connected to and passionate about mental health awareness.”
According to Sekanics, who is also a community advisor (CA), Residential Life started the Community Care Task Force in order to obtain a CA’s perspective on how to not only prevent suicide, but how to best respond to trauma and re-create a community.
“I am privileged because I am able to see firsthand how the administration and professional staff plans to respond to our feedback,” said Sekanics, who is part of the Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention Task Force. “I am honestly just so happy — honored really — to go to a school with faculty that will recognize their faults and mistakes and ask, ‘How can we make this better? How can we improve ourselves and our institution for our students?’”
Several audience members bravely challenged the administration and expressed their concerns, and while each question was different, one message became clear — the College is aggressively working towards improving the mental health and wellness of the campus community.
The College’s administration and task force members have been rigorously training and researching the best practices of how to handle postvention in the wake of a death on campus.
“Good postvention is excellent prevention,” Chong told The Signal.
After completing several trainings, including CONNECT and researching methods from the Jed Foundation and utilizing the postvention guide from A Higher Education Mental Health Alliance (HEMHA), the College has adopted the practice of safe messaging.
“It helped us shift our understanding that the role communication can have in preventing further loss is extraordinary,” Chong said of the CONNECT training. “When communicated well, it can prevent. When communicated irresponsibly, it can be very harmful.”
Studies have shown that certain wording of messages in response to a death by suicide can actually pose as negative triggers to others. For example, safe messaging says to report on suicide with the wording of “death by suicide,” instead of saying “committed suicide.”
“It’s a really strategic balance that you strive to be open and have the trust of your community without doing harm to your community. It’s a delicate balance,” Chong said. “Every word of every message of communication… is very carefully thought out with that balance in mind.”
Committing itself to the practice of safe messaging, however, has at times put the College under fire in a negative light. Feelings from the campus community have included the idea that the College has been insensitive after a recent loss or looking out for its reputation. Yet, it is simply practicing safe messaging.
“A lot of the things that are best practice for postvention seem almost counterintuitive,” College spokesman Dave Muha told The Signal. “On campus, there’s not awareness that when there is a death by suicide, that we’re actually being very thoughtful. Having sat through, unfortunately, a number of these meetings, I can tell you that the reputation of the College does not come up at all… the only thing that we’re considering is what’s best for our community.”
After a death in the College’s community, the postvention team gathers to determine the safest way to relay the information to the campus. The team uses “concentric circles” to first notify groups of people who have had the most direct interaction with the person who passed, before emailing the entire college community.
The College has focused on dealing with the aftermath of being a survivor campus in the best way possible, research has shown, Hecht said. However, the problem lies in the conflict between what the research says to do and what the campus community feels it needs.
According to Muha, safe messaging dictates that holding memorials for those who have died by suicide can sometimes negatively affect the prevention of others following in suit. After the death of former assistant provost Pat Donohue, the postvention team decided that following safe messaging by not having a memorial wasn’t best for the campus. Therefore, a tribute to Donohue was held as a “Day of Service” to honor him, while shifting the focus from a memorial to the survivors. It was held in an interactive way for participants to pay tribute, while engaging in community service themselves.
“From a community standpoint, I can see where people feel the College isn’t being sensitive because we’re not doing (certain things), but we’re not doing (certain things) on purpose,” Muha said.
The College is a survivor campus, according to Muha, and by starting an open and transparent conversation about mental health on campus, the task force hopes to shift the culture.
“One of the things that we want to convey is that we’re really trying to change the culture here at TCNJ to focus on helping one another, having each other’s backs so that we’re all in this together,” Forest told The Signal.
In an interview with The Signal, Hecht noted that while the College is a rigorous and high-achieving institution, the pressure students feel to succeed is not unique to this campus.
“That desire for perfection is unfortunately in our society and I think it’s gotten worse with social media,” Hecht said. “Your academics are absolutely important, but not at the expense of your health.”
Hecht explained that academic achievements won’t garner success without a person’s mental and physical health.
“We’re trying to graduate students who have the education and the knowledge, but also the leadership and the self-awareness to be successful,” Hecht said. “It isn’t always what’s on your academic transcript, it’s about your ability to interact with others, to have enough emotional intelligence to know what it is that you need to be successful, when you need to take a break… we want students to be able to do that for themselves.”
Chong added that while students might feel the need to be perfect, there is a significant value in failure.
“I think there’s a societal pressure to appear like you’ve got everything together,” Chong said. She used the metaphor of a duck looking serene above water, but under water, furiously kicking just to stay afloat. “And that’s something that is rewarded… I really like that we’re trying to shift… (and focus on) the power of vulnerability. You’re a stronger leader if you can show that you’re not always that duck. You have your moments of vulnerability, you have your moments of failure and what you choose to do with that is going to have a greater impact on those around you than you pretending that you’ve got it all together all the time.”
Hecht added that students must learn to take some of the pressure off of themselves and allow for some leeway to take a break and take care of themselves.
“That is just as valuable and important as studying and finishing that paper,” Hecht said. “This is just the beginning of our work together. We all have a role to play as we seek to create a more healthy and well campus.”