Thu. Mar 30th, 2023

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With the start of the semester, Penn State is reminding students of the resources available to support their mental health. 

Natalie Hernandez DePalma, senior director of Penn State Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and Brett Scofield, CAPS associate director, both note that the number of college students seeking counseling services has increased nationally over the past decade. Additionally, the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt nationwide, with students reporting an impact from COVID on their well-being and mental health. 

“What the data shows us is that some particular areas of distress have increased, such as anxiety,” DePalma said. “But the increase in distress is not necessarily the only reason why demand is rising. Rather, mental health awareness has become a bigger part of the cultural conversation.” 

Scofield, who also is executive director of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, noted that “more students are feeling comfortable asking for help, and a growing amount of faculty and staff are successfully identifying students with mental health concerns and referring them for services, which is a positive trend.”  Initiatives like the Red Folder, which has been well-received and integrated into training and orientation for new and current staff, help those that interact with students learn how to “Recognize, Respond and Refer” students for support. 

The original Red Folder initiative was made possible by a substantial CAPS funding increase from President Eric Barron in 2017 and major support from the 2020 and 2016 senior class gifts. The University Park Undergraduate Association also has helped to create and lead the initiative, which aims to educate faculty and staff members at all campuses on how to identify signs a student might be struggling with their mental health or wellness, as well as resources available to benefit them. A recent Red Folder expansion has offered additional guidance and resources for low and moderate distress in addition to high distress options, and new print folders will be distributed at University Park and the Commonwealth Campuses this semester. 

An important component of the Red Folder and creating a community of care is the concept of “no wrong door” practiced across Penn State, said De Palma and Scofield. This allows students to obtain information, support and direction from whomever they may approach. While each office can’t fulfill all needs staff expect and appreciate the opportunity to help a student find the next step and resource in their journey as a student.   

“The important thing to know is that Penn State cares, we are here for you, and we are equipped to support and empower you. Seeking help demonstrates strength and is a sign of self-compassion and care,” said Scofield.  

Helping to care and look out for other Penn Staters, including friends, colleagues and peers, is also an important element of what it means to be part of the Penn State community.  

“If you sense something amiss, say something,” DePalma said. “If you think someone is struggling, check-in with them, ask how they are, or reach out to a trusted source, like CAPS or the Penn State Crisis Line, for guidance.” 

Mental health and wellness resources 

This health and wellness webpage, maintained by Penn State Student Affairs, details the many wellness and mental health resources available to support and empower Penn State students, including: 

  • Counseling and mental health services available through CAPS, which can be reached at 814-863-0395 for University Park students, or at each Commonwealth Campus location. 

  • WellTrack, a free app that offers interactive tools for building resilience and managing stress, depression and anxiety with self-help videos; and guidance in determining next steps. 

  • Life Hacks, step-by-step wellness kits designed to help you navigate and demystify some of the more perplexing parts of being human. Instructors can utilize these as pre-packaged extra-credit options for their students. 

  • Drop-in groups focus on peer support and discussion. Stop by at your convenience during the group time. These are not therapy groups and no appointment is required. Topics cover Wellness, Sexual and Gender Diversity, Women of Color Empowerment, Black and Latino Male Empowerment, Interfaith Dialogues, and addiction recovery. 

  • Health Promotion and Wellness at University Park offers wellness and stress management programing. 

  • Free wellness sessions on topics including stress, sleep, nutrition, physical activities, and healthy relationships and sexual health. 

  • Campus Recreation programming, including personal and group fitness classes, outdoor recreation, intramural sports and other offerings. 

  • A full range of medical services, physical therapy, preventive care and immunization services available through University Health Services. 

  • The Collegiate Recovery Community supports students in recovery from alcohol and other substance use disorders. 

  • Support for students experiencing food and housing insecurity or struggling with other essential needs, including assistance with groceries and meals, toiletries and household items, housing, rent and utilities, medical bills and health insurance, textbooks, child care and financial emergencies. 

  • The Red Folder Initiative offers guidance to faculty and staff members on how to identify students who may struggling with their mental health and resources that are available to support them.

  • The Penn State Crisis Line (877-229-6400) and the Crisis Text Line (text “LIONS” to 741741), which are open 24/7 to Penn Staters dealing with both crisis and non-crisis situations — including faculty, staff and students at all campuses who have a question about someone else. The licensed professionals with the Penn State Crisis Line can help evaluate each individual situation, offer guidance and help connect callers with further resources if appropriate. 

  • Penn State University Libraries has a library guide available on Personal Health and Mental Wellness that includes a variety of wellness-related resources.  

 Additional crisis resources 

For those in immediate crisis, services through CAPS are available without a wait. DePalma and Scofield said a “crisis” can include thoughts of harming oneself or others, loss of housing, a recent death in the family, or any other traumatic event that profoundly and negatively impacts one’s day-to-day life and ability to function. 

If you want to connect with a mental health professional in the event of a crisis: 

  • For immediate or life-threatening emergencies, call 911. 

  • Call CAPS at 814-863-0395 during regular business hours, or connect with the counseling offices available at each of Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses. 

  • Call the Penn State Crisis Line — a 24/7 toll-free service staffed by licensed professionals available to all Penn State students, and those concerned about a student, at University Park and Commonwealth Campuses — at 877-229-6400. 

  • Text the 24/7 Crisis Text Line, another 24/7 resource available to all community members, by texting “LIONS” to 741741. 

Students facing unforeseen challenges also may connect with the Office of Student Care and Advocacy, which works with students struggling with everything from medical emergencies and hospitalization to food or housing insecurity. Student Care and Advocacy works with partners across the University to empower students impacted by medical issues, mental health crises, food and housing insecurity and more. Students at Commonwealth Campuses may also benefit from services offered by the Student Affairs office at their individual campus. 

Mental health and wellness tips and strategies 

DePalma and Scofield acknowledged that college can be a uniquely stressful time for many students, and that the events of the preceding years, including the COVID-19 pandemic, continue to impact students in different ways. But an important thing to understand is that feeling stress in stressful times, or anxious during uncertain times, is a normal and healthy human response to life, especially life transitions. 

“Anxiety is your body’s way of communicating that something is wrong that it wants you to pay attention to,” Scofield said. “In new life circumstances, some anxiety is normal, even healthy. Be patient with yourself as you adjust. It’s when that anxiety exceeds normal levels — if you’re feeling nervous and upset on a regular basis, or if anxiety is interfering with your ability to effectively lead your life — that you should reach out for help.” 

James Dillard, distinguished professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State who researches how people experience and manage fear of infectious diseases, said that “while feeling unsure or even fearful in uncertain times is normal, there are also strategies you can use to help manage your emotions.” 

Dillard said that taking breaks from the news and social media can help manage stress and boost an individual’s well-being. He said individuals should gauge the impact the news related to the pandemic has on them while being mindful of their mental and emotional state, and adjust their media intake and interpersonal communication on that basis. 

Dillard, DePalma and Scofield also shared that taking proper care of your body and overall wellness can help contribute to positive mental health. They advise students to continue to move their bodies regularly, get plenty of sleep, eat well-balanced and healthy meals at regular intervals, and avoid consumption of alcohol and drugs. 

“Whatever you may be going through or feeling, let yourself feel it and practice compassionate acceptance of yourself,” DePalma said. “Rather than trying to shut negative feelings down, it’s important to be honest with yourself and the people in your life, especially if you need support. And it’s equally important, for everyone, to keep connected to your important people, to the hobbies and passions that are important to you, and to your own sense of your bigger purpose in the world.” 

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