When University of Florida student Stewart Subjinski went home after the first half of his summer 2014 term, he was unsure if he would ever return to campus.
He packed his car and drove straight to Jacksonville. He never finished his remaining summer courses, never even turned in the keys to his room in Beaty Towers.
“My freshman year, I didn’t really understand how difficult college would be,” Subjinski said. “I didn’t know why I was doing poorly. I didn’t know it was something I could change.”
Subjinski had performed well in high school, so his mother knew something was wrong. When he returned home, he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and placed on medication.
About six months later, he made an appointment with U Matter, We Care (UMWC), UF’s program that works to connect students with campus resources and assist students in distress. Subjinski wanted to know if he could return to school now knowing he had a learning disability and if UF would allow him to retake the classes he had failed when he wasn’t on medication.
His case manager walked him through the process, handing him a myriad of forms to fill out if he were to be re-admitted to the university and receive a medical withdrawal. He then went to work obtaining records from his doctor about his condition, his medication, and why his disability had affected his schoolwork.
After meeting with his case manager for a second time, turning in his forms and waiting three weeks, he finally received the news: He could come back to UF and some of his classes would be dropped.
“If I had done the (medical withdrawal) process on my own, I think it would be a lot more difficult,” Subjinski said, who just started his fourth year as a finance major at UF. “I couldn’t have done it without U Matter.”
UMWC is one example of a program developed by universities that helps students in distress gain access to campus resources, especially those focused on mental health services. The program works to educate faculty, staff and students about the signs and symptoms of distress and to provide those in distress with the appropriate resources.
In the past academic year alone, UMWC has served about 6,400 students, said Tanja Philhower, an assistant dean of students and UMWC case manager.
Jen Day Shaw, UF’s dean of students, said the UF program started in 2011 and works as a “whole-person social work model.” The UMWC team is currently staffed with three case managers who work directly with students in distress.
“A lot of times I find when I meet with students they get so caught up in focusing on one part of the issue, but if we were to solve a different problem, then that first issue becomes much more minimal,” Day Shaw said.
A GROWING NUMBER OF STUDENTS IN DISTRESS
The number of college students seeking mental health assistance, specifically counseling, has increased steadily in the past decade, according to a recent report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH). This increased demand has placed a heavy burden on collegiate mental health centers.
The CCMH’s 2015 annual report, released earlier this year, summarizes mental health trends among college students. The report uses data spanning 10 years from 93 institutions, including UF.
UF’s on-campus mental health resources include the Counseling and Wellness Center, which serves as the primary provider for mental health services.
Lisa Winn, the assistant clinical director at the CWC, said the center’s demand is likely increasing but she did not know by how much. However, she said student demand increases each October and November, and again in February and March, periods that coincide with the university’s exam schedule.
“I think often times students are trying their best at the beginning of the term . . . and there is some excitement,” Winn said. “Then there is the realization: ‘Oh wow, school is not going well; I’m not doing well, and I need to get help.’”
The CWC’s most recent annual report shows that the number of students served by the CWC has increased incrementally over the past three academic years. The CWC saw 4,326 students in 2014, 4,401 in 2015 and 4,764 in 2016.
According to the CCHM report, the number of students seeking on-campus counseling nationwide has risen almost 30 percent over the past six years. Furthermore, the growth in counseling center appointments has increased by 38 percent. Self-reported depression, anxiety and social anxiety among students have all seen slow but consistent growth over the past five years.
Nearly two-thirds of college students (64 percent) who are no longer in school stopped attending due to mental health challenges, according to a survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
These same students indicated that campus resources might have been able to help them; however, they were unable to access those resources.
“It is so important to have something beyond a counseling center,” Day Shaw said. “So many people think that the way to solve all the world’s issues is to have a counseling center, and counseling centers are incredible, but there is a reason why we also need a care team.”
WHERE U MATTER, WE CARE COMES IN
Philhower said the idea behind the program is to have one central place where people can come when they are concerned about themselves or others in the UF community. The program receives both self-referrals and referrals from faculty, staff, roommates and friends.
Throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, UMWC served 5,200 students. This past academic year, the program served 6,400 — a 23 percent increase. Philhower said that with each year of existence, UMWC has served an increasing number of students.
“The fact that more and more students are utilizing our resources shows that we are making an impact,” Philhower said.
One student who has felt that impact is Noah Shakoor.
Shakoor, a first-year information systems major at the University of Florida, has suffered from insomnia since high school. Back then it wasn’t so bad, he said, because his participation on the cross-country and track teams tired him out. However, now in his first year of college and no longer on those teams, he needed outside help.
Shakoor recalled lying in bed, night after night, his thoughts racing:
Six hours of sleep left.
Five hours of sleep left.
Four hours of sleep left… Tomorrow is going to be terrible.
He reached out to UF’s Student Health Center twice, Shakoor said, and was unable even to speak to a receptionist — let alone make an appointment. That is when he decided to seek help through UMWC.
His UMWC case manager walked him through his options, talking to him not only about his insomnia, but about his life in general. He learned that UF’s psychiatry department was booked for the rest of the semester, and his only option was to go back to the Student Health Center. But with his case manager’s help, he was able to set up an appointment almost immediately.
Day Shaw explained that UMWC serves a very different role than the CWC, in that the case managers are not counselors, but rather problem solvers. Furthermore, counseling centers do not reach out to people. If someone is mentally ill, he or she has to get to the counseling center on his or her own. Students aren’t always able to do that, she said.
UMWC refers many students to the counseling center, Day Shaw said, but also to other resources that may be able to help a student. Unlike a counseling center, UMWC is allowed to talk to police or families about a student if they need to. They can let a professor know if a student has utilized the service.
“The Care Team can talk to the student first and then we can reach out to the appropriate resources,” Day Shaw said. “We will create this whole team to help (a student) be happy and all the things we want (a student) to be. That is the difference, and that is why I think both are so critical.”
HOW WE KNOW IT WORKS
Day Shaw said the Care Team has a stack of thank-you cards from students UMWC has impacted, and her office is lined with mementos from students she has helped over the years. However, because UMWC is relatively new, it does not have the numbers to show how many students UMWC has truly impacted.
“We don’t have an assessment person; we are completely understaffed for the number of students we have to see,” Day Shaw said. “We have three professionals who see 6,000 students.”
Nevertheless, she knows this program works.
Day Shaw implemented a similar program in 2007 at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, where she worked before coming to UF in 2010. Known as UNCG Cares, the program also works to educate faculty and staff about how to help students in distress and to create a “culture of care” across campus. It was created following the Virginia Tech shootings and was put together to provide the university community with information about recognizing students in distress.
“Everyone has to believe that our role is to make (our school) a caring place,” Day Shaw said. “If we notice someone in distress, don’t assume someone else is going to help that person.”
She said the Dean of Student’s Office started by training the frontline staff — groundskeepers, secretaries, people who are more likely to see students on a day-to-day basis. After that, the office focused on faculty and trained them in how to interact with students who may be in distress.
Brett Carter, the current dean of students at UNCG, said twice a semester, UNCG Cares presents a two-hour program to arm faculty and staff with information about where to send students in distress. Most often, these students are directed to the Dean of Students Office, and then staff within the office put students in touch with the proper resources, including both the on-campus counseling center and off-campus counseling practices. UNCG Cares also does student presentations, and, because of that, many students come to the Dean of Students Office on their own.
“A lot of the research shows that if students who are dealing with mental health issues receive no support, they are likely to drop out,” Carter said. “Everybody sees the role and purpose of helping students both inside and outside the classroom.”
At the end of each year, the team asks the students who have used UNCG Cares about their experiences, Carter said. One question on the survey asks, “Do you feel, after utilizing our program, that it helped you stay in school?” Each year, Carter said, the results hover between 85 and 90 percent of students responding “Yes.”
STUDENTS HELPING STUDENTS
UMWC does not rely only on faculty and staff to help students in distress. The program currently has about 37 student ambassadors who work to spread the culture of care through presentations, tabling and activities for fellow students.
Raymund Gaviola, a student ambassador and the organization’s treasurer, said he applied to be an ambassador after referring a floor mate to the program his freshman year.
“I saw one of my floor mates sitting alone in the common room really late one night, and he told me he was really struggling,” Gaviola said. “I then emailed U Matter and referred him, and he told me a few days later that he had scheduled an appointment with the (office). I was so happy he was getting the help he needed.”
Gaviola said UMWC is more than just its slogan. Not only is UMWC a campus mindset, Gaviola said, but it also has an on-campus office students can visit. That is where the case managers meet with students.
“I do feel like I’m making a difference,” Gaviola said. “I remember last year’s fall family weekend, a woman approached me and said, ‘You guys do a really great job spreading this message.’”
The woman’s daughter had just begun her first semester at UF, and right at the beginning of the semester, her stepfather had passed away. The woman said UMWC helped get her daughter back on her feet, and she asked Gaviola for a sticker to post in her classroom.
Subjinski, now managing his ADD successfully through medication, is just one of the students UMWC has impacted.
Now that he has a second chance at school with his disability under control, Subjinski said he holds himself to a higher standard.
“I didn’t have this confidence before,” Subjinski said. “I want to go to law school. I didn’t think it was an attainable goal for me, but now that I have everything under control, it is.”
HOW TO HELP A STUDENT IN DISTRESS
Anyone who believes a student you know is showing signs of distress can reach out to UMWC through the program’s email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. The email is monitored every day of the year, and you can refer a student to the program anonymously.