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Extending a Helping Hand

Nothing can mitigate the horror and loss of the shootings that occurred on April 16 at Virginia Tech. Still, if anything positive can be said to have resulted from the tragedy, it is that schools across the nation are revisiting their counseling and mental health policies - and TC is no exception.

"In light of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, we are revisiting proposals to further enhance support systems for our students," says Don Martin, Associate Dean of Enrollment and Student Services. "Our population at TC is unique, and thus we need to provide students with adequate means of support." But Teachers College is doing more than simply reacting to current events. The effort led by Martin includes more than two years of work to provide more seamless counseling services to the students.

In 2004, members of TC's administration began to discuss ways to better meet students' psychological needs. "There was no real place for a person to go to if we became aware that someone was severely overstressed," Martin said. "The best we could do was refer them to Columbia."

A Psychological Emergencies Response Team (PERT) was formed, comprising the Associate Dean for Enrollment and Student Services and directors of the Center for Educational and Psychological Services; Residential Services and Security; the Office of Access and Services for Individuals with Disabilities; the Office of Student Activities and Programs; and the Office of International Services.

PERT's first major goal has been to put in place a suicide threat prevention policy through the creation of new counseling services and better lines of communication among college staff. The team secured funding for a post-doctoral student, Greg Payton, to serve as a counselor under the direction of Dinelia Rosa, Director of the Center for Educational and Psychological Services. "If we learn that someone has made a threat of self-harm, then we as a team are able to go into action and intervene to help that person find support," Martin says.

Rosa, who practiced clinical psychology for 16 years before coming to TC, says that there are unique challenges to providing effective counseling services in a university setting. "In a clinical setting, people come openly requesting services, but here we just make them available. The challenge is how to make the services available to students while making them feel comfortable with receiving aid."

Payton's role has been to meet on a short-term basis with students who are in some sort of crisis. In addition to counseling, he assesses their needs and can refer students who need it to longer-term care. He has been able to run three wellness workshops for students and has also been working with Rosa to develop a directory of psychological services outside the university that are affordable to students. While Payton is moving on at the end of the semester, the perceived success of the program has ensured funding for a replacement, yet to be chosen.
The services have been informed and expanded by school-wide events such as a depression screening, Stressbusters teams, the Wellness Fair and others. "These are all attempts to help students realize that physical, mental and emotional health is very important," Martin says.

While the policies implemented this year have focused on preventing suicides and increasing awareness of mental health issues, PERT is in the process of formalizing other related policies and hopes to have these in place within the next year.

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