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Northwestern reaches out to parents and families to support student well-being

Expanding a community of care, support on emotional wellness and suicide prevention

Community circle of care

Northwestern University is reaching out to parents and families this year with a proactive appeal for their partnership and support to help ensure the well-being of students as part of an enhanced approach to mental health and wellness.

TheDivision of Student Affairs and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) are redoubling efforts to create a community of care and support to assist, counsel and raise awareness among students about the importance of emotional well-being and suicide prevention.

Parents, families and students can help by encouraging students to seek help when needed and by raising awareness about the wide variety of resources and assistance that are available on campus and externally to help them in times of doubt or alienation.

“Recently, our campus has experienced tragic losses to our community, and Northwestern has been working to provide ongoing support and healing,” wrote Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin in a letter to parents and families of undergraduates sent before the start of the academic year.

“Students’ health and safety have been and remain our top priorities, and we write to share with you some of the many resources and systems we have in place to support our students,” Telles-Irvin said.

Part of a broader strategy

The University’s approach is part of a broader strategy undertaken by Student Affairs in recent years to further ensure it meets its mission to help mentor students to maximize their potential and to sustain a safe and healthy Northwestern community. It also comes at a time when national rates of suicide are rising due to a variety of factors.

“Nothing is more important to Northwestern than the well-being and safety of our students,” said President Morton Schapiro. “Raising awareness about the resources and support available to community members is a key part of a public health approach to mental health and wellness. But we also need parents and families, staff and faculty, and fellow students to all work together to alert us if they see a member of the community struggling, so that we can provide the necessary support.”

“Parents and families are important partners as we promote student well-being, and our desire is always to be proactive in reaching our student community with prevention efforts in addition to responding when a critical incident or crisis occurs,” Telles-Irvin said.

“Northwestern approaches student wellness (mental, physical and spiritual) by providing a collaborative support network consisting of multiple interventions and trained staff. This network consists of a framework (view diagram with this story) that places students in the center of an extensive web of support, of which Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the Dean of Students Office are integrally involved,” she wrote. 

“Similar frameworks have been successfully implemented on a number of campuses and endorsed by leading national agencies such as the JED Foundation (a non-profit organization whose primary purpose is to reduce student suicide). Recently, Northwestern hosted the JED Foundation on its Evanston campus as we further developed and refined our framework,” Telles-Irvin noted in the letter.

Resources in place

Northwestern fosters and sustains a community of care and support for undergraduates and graduate students. Following are highlights of services and resources that are in place to support Northwestern students:

  • The suicide prevention program Question-Persuade-Refer(QPR) has trained nearly 6,000 campus community members since its launch in Spring 2012.
  • A required orientation program occurs during Wildcat Welcome for incoming undergraduate students to learn about various aspects of mental health, the available campus resources and how to access University support.  
  • NUHelp, a website and an app, is in place to provide community members with quick access to a variety of campus services and resources, including for health and wellness, safety and security, academic support and how to report a concern about a student. Parents can — and should — report concerns about their student (or their student’s friends) by submitting a Community Concern Reportor calling the Dean of Students Office.
  • Online, anonymous, mental health screening tools are available 24/7 on CAPS website for students to gain immediate feedback with information about available resources.
  • The “Let’s Talk” initiative sends CAPS staff to various campus locations to have office hours for students to come and chat about anything on their minds. The idea is that some students may be reluctant or intimidated to go to the counseling center first; therefore, staff members meet them in locations where they may feel more comfortable.
  • The “Breathe” app, launched in Fall 2017, offers students and other community members access to brief video and audio clips on mindfulness and other stress reduction strategies.
  • “Wildchat” is a peer listening service that offers students the opportunity to call and talk with other student peers about various issues and to learn about campus resources.
  • Student Assistance and Support Services (SASS), a department within the Dean of Students Office, leverages a coordinated network of services that allows students to limit any potential barriers to academic, co-curricular and social well-being.  
  • CAPS offers crisis intervention services to students with mental health professionals on-call either in person or by telephone. Also, while CAPS offers brief treatment services, the staff can assist students and their families in finding off-campus providers for specialized care and/or longer term treatment options.

These initiatives highlight some of the many programs Northwestern has in place.

“We know that early understanding and intervention often make a substantial difference in getting students timely access to critical resources when they are struggling,” Telles-Irvin said. “At Northwestern, we are committed to continually reviewing our offerings, enhancing our services and maintaining strong partnerships with parents and families to improve the well-being for all of our students. 

“If we can be of help to you in the year ahead, please contact us or any of our dedicated Northwestern colleagues who are equally committed to your student’s success,” she concluded.

Students play a critical role

CAPS Executive Director John Dunkle said the University’s strategic approach to these issues is exemplified by Northwestern’s participation in the JED Campus Program.

“We have been a part of this program for about three years now, and it demonstrates in very concrete ways a public health approach to emotional well-being and suicide prevention,” he said. “Those who visit the JED Campus Program site will be able to click on the various dimensions of the framework and learn about the program and what we are planning on doing.”

Students play a critical role in the early identification of mental health concerns, not just for themselves, but often for their peers as well. 

“We want them to say something if they see something,” emphasized Todd Adams, associate vice president and dean of students. “Resources such as the Community Concern Report and NUhelp are important ways that students can reach out for assistance by sharing an issue they are facing or that they have noticed with a friend.”

Parents, families and friends can be part of the solution in dealing with students and others who may be struggling. Mark Reinecke, chief of psychology in the department of psychiatry and behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, has this advice for those who want to help:

“Be aware of the signs of depression and risk factors for suicide, and take them seriously,” he said. “If you're concerned about a friend or family member, take your concerns seriously and offer them support and refer them for professional care. Quite often, suicide stems from feelings of hopelessness and isolation. Offering support and hope for a positive future are part of the solution.” 

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