Care for the Whole Person Helps Prevent, Treat Psychological Concerns
by Jennifer Spencer
Fordham faculty, staff, and administrators say they are working collaboratively and proactively to care for the mental health and wellness of Fordham students.
Jeffrey Ng, Psy.D., director of Fordham University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, said it is important for families to recognize that time and energy invested in a student’s psychological health will help support them for future success.
“Parents and families need to remind their students that taking care of yourself, physically, psychologically, and emotionally, actually increases the likelihood of being successful academically,” Ng said.
In a society where increasing academic pressure from a young age is prevalent and a mindset toward “getting things done” prevails, it comes as little surprise that anxiety is the most common concern students both at Fordham’s counseling center and those across the nation face.
Experts from residence life, student affairs, health services, and counseling and psychological services said Fordham’s “whole person” approach is key to creating an atmosphere where students can thrive and receive support when challenges arise.
Fordham’s commitment to cura personalis, care of the whole person, informs the community’s strategy of caring for students with mental health concerns.
Teamwork is at the core of the approach. Residence life staffers are trained extensively by experts from Counseling and Psychological Services and Campus Ministry; faculty and student affairs representatives meet monthly to share concerns and consult on student concerns.
Kimberly Russell, director of residential life at Rose Hill, said collaboration for the wellbeing of students represents Fordham’s core values and creates great value for students.
“Departmentally, we have a pretty strong web of connection, which creates a strong safety net for students,” Russell said.
Russell and her Lincoln Center counterpart, Jenifer Campbell, both said their residence life staff undergo extensive training to recognize and address concerns about student behavior.
Russell said that while no one expects resident assistants to be “mini counselors,” the relationships they develop with students can help open a conversation if they notice a student struggling.
“We don't look for RAs who think they have all the answers to everything. We do want people who are welcoming and caring and can express, ‘Hey, we’ve noticed X, Y, or Z, and we’re worried. Would you be comfortable talking to someone about that?’” she said.
Kathleen Malara, executive director of student health services, said the holistic approach is foundational to her department’s approach. Nurse practitioners ask students questions to uncover not only physical concerns, but also potential emotional or psychological challenges.
“Someone may come in and complain of a sore throat, but you need to look at the person more holistically, and understand what else are they doing. Maybe they’re a singer and they’re overextending their voice. Maybe there’s something else going on,” she said.
Malara said every appointment includes a required screening for depression and high-risk behaviors to help staff understand when a referral to Counseling and Psychological Services may be necessary.
Malara said her staff also take the time to simply ask students how they are.
“Especially with freshmen, we ask how things are going. If the permanent address is California or far away from home, we ask, ‘How are things here?’ ‘Do you have family in the area?’”
Helping Students Become Self-Advocates
College students are in the midst of a transition from dependent child to independent adult, a delicate balance that parents know all too well.
Fordham administrators said parents can help their students through this challenging time by connecting them to resources on campus and walking them through the process of learning how to resolve difficulties on their own.
“We encourage parents to re-emphasize that students should utilize the resources here on campus to resolve their issues,” said Jenifer Campbell, director of residential life for Lincoln Center.
“This is one of the first stages toward lifelong ability to be able to resolve your own issues,” she said.
The students Carolyn Mooney, director of disability services, sees are often already accustomed to overcoming challenges. Many of the more than 400 cases her office oversees are students with learning disabilities, including ADHD.
Disability Services is able to help arrange accommodations for students, such as extra time on examinations. But Mooney said it is vital for parents to help students embrace those resources on their own.
“We want to encourage our students to be self advocates. They are adults now, and if they’re going to use accommodations in the workplace they need to learn how to utilize them,” Mooney said.
While the value of seeking help independently is significant, Ng said that students who have experienced mental health problems in the past may sometimes resist asking for help once they come to college.
“Students may want college to be a fresh start and want to relinquish some of their history that has not been so favorable,” Ng said.
Knowing When Help is Needed, and Finding It
Even in supportive wellness-focused communities, mental health challenges may inevitably arise. Ng said recognizing and taking seriously the warning signs can help students get connected to the resources they need.
Ng said students often may disclose their concerns to parents before they start seeking help on campus.
“I consider families and parents to be on the front lines, so anything we can do to help them help us is very helpful,” Ng said.
Anytime a parent or others notice significant shifts in how they know their child to be, Ng encourages them to take note of modified behaviors. While major changes in behavior are normal in college-age students and not always cause for concern, Ng said it is worth taking note.
Warning signs of mental illness include social isolation, an increased use of substances, references to saying goodbye, or a loss of interest in things usually found enjoyable. Major weight loss or gain or change in sleeping habits may also be a reason to encourage a student to consider seeking help.
Ng also said that major life events, like the end of a relationship or a family death, should be taken very seriously.
“People need to go through a mourning and grieving process that, if stunted, can emerge in other ways may not be healthy.”
When the unexpected happens, Ng encourages families to trust that the time a student invests in healing will be worthwhile in the long-term.
“The trajectory to completing college doesn’t have to be linear. It’s OK to take a semester off if something happens. Life happens, and it doesn’t stop just because we’re in college,” he said.
“Fordham is a community that is compassionate, caring, and supportive. We understand that students may sometimes need to take a leave of absence in order to take care of themselves and ultimately return to school in a better place.”