Penn State

RAs the first line of defense in battling mental health issues

Penn State graduate student Jasmine Jiang was an resident assistant for two years. She went through training for mental health awareness and learned how to help students who may be homesick or battling depression.
Penn State graduate student Jasmine Jiang was an resident assistant for two years. She went through training for mental health awareness and learned how to help students who may be homesick or battling depression.

When it comes to dealing with mental health problems among the 13,800 students living on Penn State’s campus, resident assistants — students themselves — are the first line of defense.

“Part of that has to do with building a community on their floors where they can check in and out,” said John Hurst, assistant director for student leadership in the Office of Residence Life.

“They will know a difference in emotional state” among their residents, he said. The University Park campus has 277 resident assistants.

Assisting dormitory residents with a mental health problem is not a rare occurrence, statistics show.

According to the 2014 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, 37 percent of students seeking help at their college counseling centers lived in on-campus residences.

A total of 71,400 students at 140 participating schools responded to that question, meaning some 26,500 on-campus residents at those schools felt the need to seek counseling in the 2013-2014 academic year.

Hurst is in charge of a three-credit course for resident assistants, known as RAs. It includes crisis intervention.

The first step, he said, is to listen and be able to summarize the problem, then get a deeper meaning by asking open-ended questions, and lastly, figure out how to take action; most important is following up.

Hurst said RAs train before each semester by going through scenarios called “Behind Closed Doors,” where an actor portrays a resident in crisis and the prospective RA has to figure out how to help.

“It’s never easy, but it gets easier when you practice so you know what you’re looking for and how to deal with it,” he said.

Clinicians reporting the top concerns of their student clients in the same collegiate mental health report listed anxiety first, followed by depression, a relationship problem, stress, academic performance and family. A long list of other concerns followed those.

While talking out a problem with an RA might be enough in some cases, Hurst said it can be critical to bring in professional staff immediately. The primary resources are Can Help and the campus Counseling and Psychological Services.

Can Help is a 24-hour crisis hotline run by Centre County. When someone has a severe problem, a counselor can be sent to help.

Marce Pancio, assistant director of residence life, said that after 5 p.m. her staff would call Can Help; during the day, they would call CAPS.

“We have a liaison with CAPS; they hold appointments every day in case we have an emergency. But you have to call by 9 a.m. or they’ll take walk-ins,” she said.

For example, she said, there was a suicide in one of their buildings on a Saturday and a CAPS counselor came right over, updating residents on the floor and letting them know that counseling was available. The same was true when a student died after jumping off of a crane last year, she said.

Suicidal thoughts are not rare among college students who have sought help at their schools’ counseling centers, according to the 2014 collegiate mental health report.

Of the 82,383 students who responded to the question, about 36 percent said they had at least once seriously considered attempting suicide. Of the 20,371 students who said they had considered a suicide attempt, nearly 47 percent said the thought occurred within the past year.

Nearly 9 percent had actually made a suicide attempt, the report said.

RA training does pay off for those who have to deal with serious problems.

Jasmine Jiang, a graduate student from China, was an RA from 2012 to 2014. She recalled when one of her residents was depressed.

“She wasn’t eating or going to classes and she didn’t want to come out of her room,” Jiang said. “She was sleeping for 20 hours a day.”

The resident’s worried roommate called her, she said. Jiang went to the student and asked how she could help.

“Right after our talk she ended up going to CAPS and scheduling an appointment with them,” Jiang said “I could tell by the end of the semester that she was definitely much better.” She said it felt good to be able to help out as an RA.

Megan Bailey is a Penn State journalism student.

Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of a six-part series on mental health on campus. The series was produced by students in Penn State’s College of Communications.