A school-wide effort to eliminate stigma around mental health
Imagine a place where you’re respected and not judged. Where you can feel safe and welcomed, regardless of gender, race, religion, political beliefs or physical and mental abilities. Imagine a place that is stigma free. This vision is a reality at Felician University, a diverse Catholic institution of higher education in the Franciscan tradition with campuses in Rutherford and Lodi, New Jersey.
“Our mission and values call us to show compassion, respect for human dignity, and to work for peace and justice,” said Felician’s President, Dr. Anne Prisco. “We want our students to feel supported academically, spiritually, physically and emotionally.”
In the fall of 2016, Dr. Prisco participated in a colloquium sponsored by the Mary Christie Foundation that brought together thought leaders in higher education and foundations to discuss the current context of student health and wellness.
“As educators, we all know that wellness is critical to academic and life success,” Dr. Prisco said.
As the leader of a 75-year-old university rooted in Franciscan values, Dr. Prisco believes that institutions of higher learning have a further calling to serve and care for their students.
“This notion of care — to both cherish and challenge — places health and wellness central to our role as a university,” Dr. Prisco said.
The colloquium provided the time and opportunity to both learn from the experts about recent trends and engage in dialog about what the role of higher education institutions could and should play in addressing the mental health of students.
Buoyed by her colloquium experience, Dr. Prisco’s subsequent call to action set the stage for what the University’s community of staff, faculty and students view as a successful launch of endeavoring to be a Felician community that is taking a comprehensive approach to addressing the mental health and wellness of its students.
Felician focused on new initiatives last year by becoming a Stigma-Free-designated campus during Mental Health Awareness month in May 2017.
Felician was among the first institutions of higher learning in New Jersey to join the Codey Fund for Mental Health’s Stigma-Free Campaign. Created by former Governor Richard Codey and his wife Mary Jo Codey in 2012, the campaign was founded on the beliefs that access to comprehensive care and quality treatment for individuals with mental illness is a right, and that the stigma associated with mental illness is the single biggest barrier between the people suffering with mental health disorders and the treatment that can change their lives.
“The health and wellbeing of our students is at the core of our mission,” said Dr. Prisco. “Our Franciscan values of respect for human dignity, compassion, transformation, solidarity with the poor, justice and peace, transcend everything we do at the University.”
Rolling Out Stigma Free
During Spring Break 2017, the Student Affairs and Enrollment professional staff at Felician received all-day training on Mental Health First Aid. This was in preparation for the University’s Mental Health Stigma-Free Campus Kick-off event for the entire campus community on May 3, 2017.
“We assembled a Stigma-Free Planning Group including faculty, staff and students to plan our events for the 2017-2018 academic year,” Dr. Prisco said. The Felician community’s planned events were then presented to the President’s Council.
The Kick-off Event was very well attended and involved many local speakers to help destigmatize the utilization of the Counseling Center on campus and mental health resources in the community. Esteemed speakers included Senator Codi, Bergen County Executive James Tedesco III, East Rutherford Mayor James Casella, Rutherford Councilwoman Dr. Stephanie McGowan, and student Alexandra Frontin.
In the wake of the kick-off, Felician continued to blaze a path in fulfilling its pledge as a Stigma-Free institution of learning. Among the many important initiatives of 2017 and 2018:
• Piloted on-line suicide prevention program “Ask. Listen. Refer,” where all members of the college community are trained in suicide prevention annually.
• Felician’s CARE team, the school’s behavioral intervention team, resumed under the leadership of the University’s Dean of Students, Dr. Ronald Gray, to respond to students emotional and behavioral concerns in a collaborative and timely manner.
• In collaboration with a Department of Justice grant that Felician University received for sexual violence prevention and response, the University worked collaboratively with its grant Project Coordinator, Leigh Carter, and its Coordinated Community Response Team (CCRT), to update all of the University’s sexual misconduct policies and resource brochures.
• Hosted the Clothesline Project, a powerful exhibit designed to raise awareness of the devastating impact violence has on the community. The exhibit featured hundreds of t-shirts created by survivors of personal violence, including sexual assault, domestic violence, stalking, sexual harassment, child abuse and murder. Creating the shirts promoted healing by providing survivors with an avenue to break the silence of their victimization and allowing others insight into their personal experience.
• Hosted film screening of the human trafficking documentary, “I Am Jane Doe,” followed by a panel discussion of experts.
• Offered information tables in the dining halls on stress management, self-esteem, PTSD, domestic violence, substance use, mental health issues, and ADHD.
• Provided smoking and vaping cessation info tables and alcohol screening events.
• Offered therapy dogs during midterms and finals.
• Incorporated the Stigma-Free theme into RA and Orientation Leader training sessions and into Parents Panels during SOAR (Summer Orientation, Advising, and Registration days).
• Met with the University’s EOF (Educational Opportunity Fund) students and its International students about adjusting to college and overcoming cultural stigma about mental health concerns.
• Educated athletes about “Performance Enhancing Drugs” and “Alcohol and/or Recreational Drug Use.”
• Conducted a Green Ribbon Campaign (stigma-free suicide prevention), and programs on mindfulness and healthy relationships.
• Hosted speaker, Nancy Graham, LCSW, from the Renfrew Center who spoke about “Body Image and Social Media” and featured an art exhibit by art therapy clients in the Center’s eating disorder treatment program. In concert with this important program, the University initiated the “Health at Every Size” campaign for diverse size inclusion.
• Launched the University’s first student organization for LGBT students, “Wings of Pride.”
Developed the “Success Strategies” program for students who return from a hospital evaluation or admission to help them succeed upon return to the campus community.
While all of this and more has been accomplished in realizing the vision of a Stigma-Free campus at Felician University, clearly this is a process of continuous improvement. All of this was accomplished with campus support, collaboration, and ingenuity, and with minimal funding.
We cannot wait to see what next year’s events have in store for us at Felician University.
Anne M. Prisco, Ph.D is the President of Felician University. Sharon McNulty, LPC, ACS, BCPC, NCC, DRCC, CCTP is the Director of Felician University’s Counseling Center.