Supported Education at the University of Utah

For any student, trying to
succeed in higher education can be a challenge. Not only is the academic
work more advanced, but there’s also a higher
degree of independence required. Even the best prepared
students sometimes struggle with the
transition to campus life. For students with
mental health needs, there are additional challenges. They have to face all the
academic and social hurdles that everyone else confronts,
while simultaneously managing their own health and wellness. This can be stressful
and difficult. And these students
too often find themselves unable to complete
their educations, cut off from the many positive
life outcomes associated with getting a degree. To help students overcome
those unique hurdles, many colleges and
universities are developing supportive education programs. These programs are designed
to connect students with supports and
accommodations that can help keep them on campus. They typically rely on
the coordinated efforts of administrators, counselors,
faculty, and students in creating the conditions
for campus success. The University of
Utah is an example of an institution that has
made significant efforts to implement the
supportive education model. To get a full picture
of their approach, we spoke with members of the
university community that play several essential roles
in their supportive education network. They included the
director of the Center for Disability Services, the
director of the University Counseling Center, faculty,
and most importantly, students that rely on the program. We begin our
investigation by speaking with Scott McAward,
who runs the University Center for Disability Services,
and his colleague Lauren Weitzman, who is in charge
of the University Counseling Center. Their two offices
work in concert to take the lead in
supporting students with mental health needs
at the University of Utah. So I oversee the
office, the staff, and work with all students with
disabilities on our campus. Our office is charged with
providing accommodations and support to any
student that is eligible as a student
with disability. The students that we work
with, probably 30% to 40% would be classified with
psychological or psychiatric disability. One of the most important
things for an office like ours is, how are we
collaborating across campus? What are our partnerships like? And are we able to really
provide a more holistic support network for our students? The Counseling Center is one
of our number one key partners. They provide the psychological
counseling group. They provide all sorts of
services around mental health. I have been at the Counseling
Center for at least 15 years. It kind of depends
how you count it. I’m currently in my 11th year
as director of the Counseling Center. We’re the primary
mental health counseling support for students on campus. And for us, that means we offer
several different services. We have seven licensed
psychologists, four licensed clinical
social workers. We have an associate clinical
mental health counselor, and then a small
psychiatry staff. We have a lot of
options for students in terms of who they
might sit down and talk with as a counselor. And it’s giving another
way for students to connect in terms of learning
more strategies about how to manage stress and anxiety. So I think we are relatively
innovative in terms of the services that
we provide, and I think we have that leeway here. I would compare us to, let’s
say, a small private school, where the model is
often very different. So it’s a smaller staff. The staff are doing
proportionally more one-on-one clinical work. We’ve always here operated from
a model that, again, kind of expands Counseling
Center service delivery functions outside of
just the therapy room. While it’s essential to have key
individuals in place to oversee a quality supportive
education program, their ability to connect with
other parts of the campus community is just as
central to any program’s overall effectiveness. I think our program
effectiveness is due to relationships. The relationships
we build is really what helps us be
supportive to our students. It’s very different
if we can say, I know this person
in this office that might be really helpful. Let’s see if we can get
you hooked up with them. And it’s also the relationships
are so important when we have to reach out to a
faculty member in a department and collaborate to solve
a problem together. So I think without
the relationships, we just can’t be effective. Being proactive is critical. I always struggle when
I have to reach out to a department or a
person to solve an issue or solve a problem when
I’ve never had contact with them before
because now I’m trying to build a relationship
at the same time I’m trying to address an issue. And so it’s always
more effective to have those relationships
from the get-go, even if you don’t necessarily
need to tap into them. And I think it’s also
being able to look at, how is your environment, how
is your office being inclusive and welcoming to students
that might be struggling with mental health issues? We want to make
sure that students know that the Counseling
Center exists, so we’re very active in terms of
collaborating with other campus units, providing prevention
and outreach programming. We recognize that
it doesn’t always feel comfortable to think
about going in for counseling. And so we put a lot
of time and energy into how we can sort of
decrease some of the barriers that people might
be experiencing around seeking help. One of the most
important partners in setting a positive
tone for serving students with mental health needs is
the University administration. For both Disability Services
and the Counseling Center, it’s important that those
running the university at the highest level
buy into the idea that mental health on
campus truly matters. It’s also important that you
work with your administration to help understand
issues, disabilities and issues of mental health. And that can often
be a challenge. And so I think
it’s understanding your administration
on your campus that you report to and up. Where are they with that? What is their understanding? And really approach that,
again, collaboratively about how you can partner. I think we’re very fortunate
to have strong support. As a matter of fact, the
associate vice president to whom I report was a previous
Counseling Center staff member, and so she gets it. And I think our
administration understands that providing effective
Counseling Center support, counseling services,
is a strong piece of that. Our administration is very
supportive of what we do. They understand our office. They understand our students. They understand the importance. And so we feel very supported
by the institution as a whole. That’s not always the case. And so a challenge
sometimes is, how do you work with campus
administrators to understand the importance of what you do
and how you play a bigger role? While the administration,
in many ways, sets the tone for how
mental health is perceived and how seriously
it’s taken, it’s the faculty that interacts
with students on a daily basis. The people in the
classrooms with the students have a key role to play in the
supportive education process. We got the perspective of
one longtime faculty member, professor Tim Chambless. Supportive education,
to me, is a partnership with faculty and staff at
a major public university to help its students, especially
students with special needs. I have worked with
staff at the Center, and I communicated in my
desire to be a partner, and as helpful as I can be,
for students who have a wide range of disabilities. I think, first of
all, we start with, do the staff in our office
know staff in other offices? Are we familiar? I think there’s something
to be said for face time with other offices on campus. I walk by there every day. Sometimes I’ll stick
my head in and say hi. I have a good
working relationship with all the members,
and I’ve been involved with the Center going
back, gosh, about 22 years. Every semester, I will
have at least one student who is very depressed. That student will
come to see me, and I realize very quickly
from apparent symptoms that the student is depressed. So I will actually
walk that student over to the Counseling Center,
where there is always at least one counselor on call
at any hour during the day and who can meet with
the student very quickly. I know that I am not
the appropriate person. I’m not a psychologist
or a psychiatrist. But I can be a
helpmate to students who maybe need that assistance
to be able to sit down with a trained professional to
try to talk it out and resolve or lessen some very real
emotional personal problems. While the administrative
staff lays the groundwork for supportive education,
and the faculty facilitates accommodations in
the classroom, it’s ultimately the
students themselves that drive the supportive
education process, taking advantage of the
services available to them and advocating for
their own needs. We also really want to
help foster independence in the student and self-advocacy
in terms of helping students learn the tools that
are going to help them be successful after
they’re gone from our campus. And that’s an integral
part of everything we do. We might have a student
for four or six years, depending on their
program, but then they’re going to be out working
in their career. And the more tools
they can pick up about how to get the
support they need now is going to benefit
them in the long run. The University of Utah
has been supporting me in pursuit of my educational
goals in many ways. Since I have bipolar,
it’s really hard to predict when I’m going
to have a rough time. Sometimes the hypomania
or the depression will just come out of nowhere. Through the Counseling Center,
through the Disability Center, I have been given accommodations
such as flexible deadlines. And that’s been a
lifesaver because when these things happen, I become
completely incapacitated, and I’m not able to work. I’m not able to function. My priorities change. And so having these
flexible deadlines, it allows me to go to my
professors and say, hey, I’m having a rough
time with this. Especially in the
fall, I have an episode that’ll usually
last for anywhere from a week to two weeks. And so this allows me
to have those full two weeks of assignments
that I’ve missed, to be able to still get those
in without being penalized for them being late. Most professors,
without accommodations, if an assignment’s late, you
don’t get any credit for it. And so having this, they’re
able to work with me to help me get back on track so
that the rest of the semester I can be on par with
the rest of my peers. Well, the most important
thing they for me was that they gave me the
paperwork and the means and the approval to get my
emotional support animal, which changed everything because
I could sleep at night. I could be functional enough
to get my homework done. And I think the
big part there is that they collaborate a lot
between the Counseling Center and Disability Services. My emotional support
animal changed my life. If I had not been involved
with the Counseling Center and the
Disability Services and been able to get
that, I would not be able to stay in school. I almost actually left
school because things got out of control. And it wasn’t until the
Counseling Center pointed me in the direction of
Disability Services, and I started talking to my
Disability Services adviser that he said, look, you
have all of these options, smaller class sizes
and things like that, that were really helpful. And through just everyone
in these programs really wanting to help, that
is how I stayed in school. And it was just really
the people caring more than anything probably. It made it possible for
me to succeed on my own. Instead of using it
as a crutch, it’s more like it teaches you
methods and skills and places. It’s not a boost that
other kids aren’t getting. One of the big differences
between the experiences of students in higher
education and those of students at the high school level has
to do with the greater demand for self-advocacy in college. K through 12 students are
guaranteed certain protections under the individuals with
Disabilities Education Act and have individual
education plans to lay out the specifics
of their accommodations. College students,
on the other hand, are more loosely protected
against discrimination under the Americans
with Disabilities Act. As a result, it
falls to students to advocate for specific
accommodations themselves. I’ve had both positive
and negative experiences when dealing with the faculty
and the accommodations. A lot of them, they’re
very careful to make sure that it’s not an
unfair advantage, and sometimes to the point
where they don’t really want to give the accommodation. Or they go, flexible deadlines? All right. We’ll give you an extra day
to make up this two weeks that you’ve missed out on. And so when I’ve had
experiences like that, I’m able to go to the Disability
Center and my counselor there and kind of give
them the situation. And because we work
so closely, he’s able to email the professors and
let them know what’s going on. I would say most of the
teachers I have had, if I have requested
an accommodation through Disability
Services, have been very willing to work with me. Some are a bit reluctant. I think there’s still
some faculty members here, and probably on
every campus, that don’t really see
mental health concerns as any kind of disability. It’s rare that that happens. But I have had to withdraw
from a course or two because the teacher is just–
it’s not that they completely deny the accommodation request. It’s just that they don’t
see it as real as much. So they agree to it, and
then the follow-through is missing sometimes. Yeah, I would say,
for the most part, my experience is
that the faculty are receptive to
meeting students’ needs and are willing to
work with students. Of course, there is going to
be some variation in that. So we’ll meet with
students who are struggling in a particular
class, and we always advise them to go talk
with the faculty member if that’s something that
they feel comfortable with. Some faculty are
more open to, let’s say, a letter of support
from us than others. Oftentimes we
interact with faculty when there is an immediate
situation of concern that they’re involved with. And that’s where our Faculty
Liaison Program or just kind of our day-to-day operations for
how we handle crisis situations are really important because
there’s always somebody here for a faculty to
talk to if they have a question about a
particular student or how to help a student
get the help that they need. Some faculty members are very
receptive, very sensitive, and will make the time
available to help students. Others are a little
more concerned about making sure that they
meet the time deadlines. And therefore, they’re a
little less cooperative, unfortunately, with students
who may need a little more time in the classroom. I think my department
is quite receptive, and I am an advocate as well. And I have indicated
both in my syllabus, and I believe all the
professors in the department have a paragraph in their
respective syllabi, that indicates that we will do what
is necessary to help students with special needs. This is a very
important subject to me because I’ve actually had
students end their lives. And you can see that maybe
a student is unhappy, may be distracted,
but I don’t know if you’re ever really ready for
finding out that a student has committed suicide. So having had that experience,
I try to be proactive. I try to be informational
and encouraging to have students come and talk to me. And then we’ll do
whatever we can to be able to lower
their stress load. Be it an examination,
a paper, sometimes just a large classroom can be a
very stressful experience for some students. So I indicate to my students
that this is a two-way street. There’s a partnership here. If they have a special need
that they’ll discreetly explain to me or convey to
me that they have a need and need a special
accommodation, I’m going to do whatever
is necessary to be able to provide it. We have a lot of success
stories in that regard, and we have some
more challenging, where we have to take a
little extra time to work with the faculty,
particularly faculty that may not have worked with our
office or our students before. Yeah, we have support
from our administration. We have staff who are willing
to get outside and connect with people. It’s a really
collaborative place here to work in terms of developing
and maintaining relationships with campus partners
and faculty and staff because they’re the ones who
oftentimes will first encounter a student who might
need our services, and if they can
facilitate a referral. While much of the responsibility
to make supportive education work falls to the
student, there is no doubt that some schools do a better
job of setting students up for success than others. So what makes the program at
the University of Utah work? This is my third university
that I’ve attended. And in the other
two, I didn’t even really know that they
had a system set up where I could receive help. I just went through and tried to
make do with the best I could. What makes this one
effective is how visible it is, how, at the
beginning of each semester, all of the professors
say, if you have any needs through
the Disability Services, come up and talk to me
if you’re registered. They make it known that this
is an option that’s available. And because of that,
I was able to know I could get the help here. I use the Counseling
Services quite frequently. I usually visit my
counselor every other week. And then every two
to three weeks, I visit a psychologist
there as well. I’m able to go there
because the prices there are lower than what my co-pay
is for the insurance I’m on. And so not only
that, but they’re able to communicate with
the Disability Center, and I’m able to get letters from
them to give to my professors. To a certain extent,
it’s up to the student to coordinate off-campus and
on-campus resources together. But I haven’t run into
problems with advising, counseling, or
Disability Services that would say, no, we won’t
work with that off-campus organization. They usually will
give you the referral, and then if you need
something to come together between the two,
it’s your job to get. They’ll give you the
paperwork they need, but you’re the one who has
to go get all the materials and get it together. The entire effort to make
supportive education work happens within the context
of a larger campus community. Just as it does within
society at large, the stigma that can be attached
to mental health on campus can color the experience
of individuals. For the administrators
and faculty we spoke with, the conversation
about mental health has become more open
over the long term. For students,
however, there’s still a perceived reluctance
among their peers to take mental health seriously. I think we’re seeing the
stigma of mental health has improved over the
past 10 or 15 years. And yet, still
many students feel as though it’s not
OK to seek help for depression and for anxiety. So we want to remove
that barrier primarily. How we generate a positive image
of mental health on campus? And that’s a big question. Obviously, our office
talks about it a lot. The Counseling Center
talks about it a lot. But what do other offices do? Is it being talked and
discussed on the faculty side? Is it being talked in housing? And I think that’s
really how it’s achieved. And it’s being discussed
in those ways, I think, helps make it more of
a welcoming, inclusive environment. Yeah, in terms of the culture
surrounding mental health on campus, I think it’s
changing in positive ways. I think there’s something
about kind of younger students or the newer generation
of students who are coming in who, I think,
in some small ways, stigma is getting lowered a bit. But I still think it’s
prevalent out there. People are coming
to campus already having dealt with a psychiatric
disability or a mental health concern. And so they are a little
bit more savvy about how to work with that. Parents are becoming more
active in making sure that students are getting
the support they need. There’s definitely still a
stigma associated with it. And that’s one of
the big problems because it’s hard enough
to go through your teachers when you can’t go
to your friends and say, look, I have this
mental health concern, and it’s really causing
me problems in my life, I need some support in
this way, without feeling like people are going to
walk around on eggshells when they’re around you, or treat
you differently, or just kind of laugh it off and
tell you to get over it. None of those are really
good responses that you want. And so approaching people
about it is very intimidating, and I don’t like
to do it at all. It’s kind of a
chicken and egg thing because when people are
too afraid to tell people, oh, yeah, I have a
psychiatric disability, then people don’t know. Like, oh, my friend has
a psychiatric disability. That doesn’t mean they’re weird. Because they don’t know that
the normal people around them, or the “normal” people
around them, have those concerns as well. I feel like a person’s ability
to reach out and get help when they have a
mental health issue, get these accommodations,
is kind of a personal one. It’s something that’s
within themselves. Personally, it’s hard for me
to accept the accommodations. Like I have them there,
but to actually use them, it requires me to
swallow my pride and admit that I need this
help, that without it, I’m not going to get the grades
that I should be getting. And that can be really
hard because that requires me to admit that,
without this help, I can’t perform the same
as the other students. It requires me to admit
that I have a disability. And since it’s a mental one
that no one else can see, I’m afraid that people are
going to judge me and be like, oh, you’re just trying
to get a little extra help. You’re just trying to take
the easy way out of work, or even worse, that’s
cheating, which it’s not. But at times, it
can be difficult for me to admit that
I need that help. While accommodating students
with mental health needs can be complicated,
the success realized at the University of Utah shows
not only that it can be done, but that it’s
definitely worth doing. To make supportive
education work, it’s important to
create a network that allows students to find
entry into the program at a variety of points. This happens when the
culture of support extends beyond disability
offices and counseling centers and expands it to every part
of the university guided by a strong sense of
campus-wide collaboration. It’s essential
that administrators buy into the importance of
addressing mental health on campus and helping students
that require accommodations to succeed. It’s also necessary to
get the faculty on board so they can work with
students to find solutions to their classroom
challenges and connect them with the help they need when
they recognize an issue. Perhaps most importantly,
students with mental health needs must be encouraged
to advocate for themselves and be given the tools
they need to thrive. When a university
makes the effort to help students with
mental health needs through supportive education, it
becomes a more inclusive place, and students get the
opportunity for success that higher education
represents for everyone. Without university
support, I probably would not be able to graduate. I don’t think I would have
learned some of the skills that I really needed or
found the right places to get the help that
I needed in order to get through my classes. And now as it is, I’m set
to graduate next year. If I didn’t have the
support that I have here, I honestly think I would end
up dropping out of college. I wouldn’t graduate. If I didn’t have
these accommodations, if that wasn’t in place, then
what would probably happen is my GPA would drop so
I would get kicked out. Without this help, I
wouldn’t be in college. [MUSIC PLAYING] For more information,

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