Students sit in a group counseling session.

Mental health task force will improve access to, awareness of campus resources

The task force’s work will improve mental health support of all students, faculty and staff.

Sitting around a table with students at a luncheon, Vice Provost Tracey Weldon watched the conversation shift from aspirations to hardship.

“What do you do when you have so many negative thoughts?” one student asked the other five at the table. With no pause, the students began sharing their struggles and what they were doing to overcome them. Two shared how they were looking for groups of people to pull together as a support network.

That’s when Weldon chimed in. “I said, well, you know there’s group counseling. And they all — six students around a table — said, ‘There’s group counseling?’ They didn’t know,” says Weldon. “I mean, this is exactly what they are looking for, and it exists, and they aren’t signing up for it because they don’t know about it.”

At South Carolina, these students’ experience is not unique. The university’s mental health services are far reaching — including group counseling sessions with immediate availability, telehealth, wellness coaching, and a phone line offering 24/7 counseling and support. But awareness of them within the UofSC community is sometimes missing. Through a mental health task force that began in November, the Office of the Provost is seeking to improve mental health and wellness support for students, faculty and staff through a two-pronged approach centered on building awareness of existing resources and making a financial request for more.

The task force is led by Vice Provosts Sandra Kelly and Weldon, and its members include 12 other high-ranking officials from across the university who, in one way or another, oversee an aspect of the university’s mental health resources. The goal of the task force is simple: to be action oriented and make change.

“We will identify where the gaps are,” says Weldon. “We will propose solutions. And people will feel it in their daily lives.”

Their first goal was to open discussion among the task force’s members and ensure that the task force itself understood the wide swath of resources available on campus. From there, they began identifying two types of actions they could take: the “easy fixes” that could be implemented immediately to improve access and awareness, and the long-term changes that needed to occur to make service more comprehensive and robust. They have now set about drafting a request for additional funding of needed resources.

Unlike other university task forces and committees which can continue for multiple semesters, the deadline for their work is tight. By April, they hope to have a clear resource request. There is no time for drawn-out discussion.

“This is the time,” says Weldon. “We are at the crisis point. And if we don’t act now, we are just waiting for a tragedy."

Weldon and Kelly know that the university’s mental health concerns are not unique. Across higher education, universities are struggling to manage an increased need for mental health services — so much so, that Congress is introducing legislation to see what else can be done on the nation’s campuses. During the pandemic, major depressive disorders globally increased by 28% and anxiety disorders globally increased by 26%. And on South Carolina’s campus between 2019 and 2021, UofSC students diagnosed with depression increased from 20.1% to 23.1% and anxiety increased from 26.2% to 32.9%.

Change is needed, and it’s needed now.

“We are going to do better,” says Kelly. “Universities across the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere are wrestling with this issue. And certainly, when I talk with my counterparts it’s like, ‘Well, what are you doing? And we are sharing what works and brainstorming about how we can all do better to support our university communities.”

With still two months left of meeting, the task force has already begun putting its words into action. In January at the Spring Provost’s Retreat, task force members held 30-minute breakout sessions with academic leaders across campus to share its objectives and to solicit feedback and ideas for improvement. The task force also developed a statement that faculty can add to syllabi highlighting resources for students who are struggling, and it’s in the process of developing PowerPoint slides that can be displayed at the end of classes or meetings providing easy access to campus mental health resources.

Through every effort — be it a statement for syllabi or the coming resource request — the task force and its members are intent on leaving a lasting impact that will benefit all faculty, staff and students in the UofSC community.

“This task force has the potential to change the well-being of our entire campus,” says Stephen Cutler, South Carolina’s interim provost who formed the task force. “We know that changes need to be made on this campus and that there are improvements to be had. I have the utmost faith that the people on this task force will lead us to where we need to be in supporting all our faculty, staff and students.”

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