For the first 30 minutes, University of Rochester academic advisor Hana Goldstein thought her advisee seemed totally fine. Suddenly, she broke down in tears. 

“I was about to say to her, ‘Okay, have a great day. We'll chat in a couple of weeks.’ And then she just started crying,” Goldstein said. “She opened up to me.”

It’s not uncommon for Goldstein to find her one-on-one sessions with students veering from the academic to the personal. Some students are quick to tell her about an issue they’re facing outside the classroom, she said, while others choke back those troubles, at least initially. “You never know what someone's going through.”

There is a growing acknowledgement on college campuses that student mental health is influenced by a community of care, and not just one office or service. But taking a more public health approach to college mental health suggests all community members must be prepared to respond if a person reaches out or breaks down. At the University of Rochester, a new wellbeing initiative hopes to fill that need with a curriculum-based training program that helps faculty and staff support struggling students, and each other, in a way beyond “report and refer.”   

This fall, the Health Promotion Office at the University of Rochester launched the Well-being for Life and Learning Training Program, designed for student support staff like Goldstein, who are hungry for tools to support struggling students. The opt-in, self-paced program requires participating faculty and staff to take four core and two elective workshops on a range of wellbeing topics from supportive communities and suicide prevention to intercultural communication and religious diversity.

At its core, the Well-being for Life and Learning Program is a student success initiative, born from the understanding that if students are living better, they will learn better. Rochester’s Health Promotion Specialist for Student Well-Being, Rebecca Block, leads the Well-being for Life and Learning Training Program. She said faculty and student support staff interactions are particularly important to this work. 

Photo by J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester

In 2021, when the Boston University School of Public Health, Mary Christie Institute, and Healthy Minds Network published a report on The Role of Faculty in Student Mental Health, Block found statistical support for the challenges she’d witnessed teachers confront first-hand. Of the more than 16,000 faculty surveyed, nearly 80% said they’d spoken to students about their mental health in the last year, while only 51% said they could confidently identify a student in distress. The majority (73%) said they would welcome opportunities to improve their skills in this area.

“That report made it more acceptable, I think, at a research institution to say, ‘Okay, this data came out of this study with over 12 universities’ faculty reporting this issue. This means that we should do something about it,’” Block said. 

That same year, in 2021, Block launched the Support Student Mental Health workshop series, bringing together ten experts to lead sessions on topics including trauma-informed pedagogy, recognizing students in distress, and educator self-compassion. By spring, 2023, the Health Promotion Office was polling Rochester’s faculty and staff, finding 85% had spoken to students about their mental health in the last year, but more than half had never received formal training to “navigate discussions with students in distress.”

Upon the success of the workshop series, Block began considering an even more formal, expanded platform to provide faculty and staff with the tools to support not only student mental well-being but their own well-being and that of the community generally. The result, launched this fall, was the Well-being for Life and Learning Training, complete with two unique tracks for faculty and staff, respectively, and offered both online and in-person. By showing faculty and staff how to care for not only struggling students but also themselves, the course tries to relieve some of the pressures that might otherwise detract from their own wellness and ability to teach. 

“This is really the first thing I’ve done that's really focused on students' well-being and mental health and how we as staff people can actually make an impact on their lives.”

Block said she first became passionate about faculty wellness as a teacher in New York secondary schools. She noticed how instructors’ stress, often internalized from their students, affected teaching. “Working in those classrooms really was the pivotal moment for me. I was like, ‘These kids are not going to learn. They're not going to be well if their teachers are not able to regulate their own emotions, if they're not able to support students in the ways that they need.”

For Amy McDonald, director of Rochester’s Health Promotion Office, one of the primary functions of the Well-being for Life and Learning Training Program is its contribution to a more institutional approach to student mental health and wellness. Historically, McDonald said she’s found a gap between the 70 or 80 health education programs run every year at Rochester and the reality of student health outcomes. “We were working so hard to help these students on an individual level, but it really wasn't impacting their health. So, we really started to shift our thinking to, ‘How can we take a more systems and settings approach to this?’”

“Because we can teach them skills and give them the knowledge,” McDonald added, “but if they don't live and exist in an environment that supports those choices and makes those choices easy, it's going to be impossible for them to achieve that well-being.”

So far, the Well-being for Life and Learning Program has managed to draw employees from a variety of areas on campus with diverse levels of expertise in mental health care. Before enrolling, Hana Goldstein, for example, had already participated in a range of trainings and certifications to inform her student care as an academic advisor. Still, she said she was able to find workshops covering issues she had yet to explore in depth, including addressing grief and loss with students.

Because Health Promotion staff designed these workshops specifically for faculty and student support staff at the University of Rochester, Goldstein said she thinks they’ve chosen facilitators well-suited to advise their unique audience. She said she appreciated the leader of the elective workshop on “Compassion Fatigue” coming from Rochester’s Employee Assistance Program, which manages mental health services for employees. “Compassion fatigue can kind of seem like, ‘Oh, it's just about self-care, and feel a bit redundant at times,’” Goldstein explained. “It was nice to hear about it from the perspective of someone who is not necessarily student-facing, but from someone who is more staff- and faculty-facing.”

Other staff who have participated, like Claudia Pietrzak, the user experience and social media manager for Rochester’s River Campus libraries, arrived at the workshops with a more limited background in mental health training. “This is really the first thing [I’ve done],” Pietrzak explained. “I mean, I have done safe space training and racial justice training here at Rochester and at previous institutions, but nothing that's really focused on students' wellbeing and mental health and how we as staff people can actually make an impact on their lives.”

The opportunity for formal training was exciting for Pietrzak, who said she would otherwise approach the mental health issues of students like those of friends. “It's kind of like, ‘Well, I know what I would do for a friend, but I don't know what I can do or what I should do as this person that I am on campus—where I'm an adult, even though I don't often feel like it.”

In the four workshops she’s taken since early October, Pietrzak has already found practical applications in her everyday life. The suicide prevention course left “an impression on me [where] I know more what to look out for when working with other people and I know more about what it is I can do,” she said. The same compassion fatigue class that Goldstein took also came in handy, Pietrzak said, as she had just recently spoken to a coworker struggling under the weight of students’ rising stress levels as finals neared.

“The session on compassion fatigue was really good because, as a friend to this colleague, I felt very empathetic towards her, but I'm also kind of stressed out, too. So it's like, ‘How do I take care of myself and not absorb this person's stress?’” The course reaffirmed the importance of setting boundaries, Pietrzak said, to help her avoid ‘sinking with the ship.’ 

Moving forward, Rebecca Block hopes the Health Promotion Office will be able to connect the impact of the training to improved student success outcomes. “How can we tie GPAs or graduation rates or retention rates to students that attend classes from the people that have completed the training?” she said. “Is there any correlation there?”

For now, at least anecdotally, the Health Promotion team feels heartened by the positive feedback from the community, as they try to raise awareness around the initiative. “I worked with one of our athletic trainers a couple weeks ago, and he was going to bring [the program] to the director of athletics to see if it could be mandated that all head coaches complete the training,” Amy McDonald said.

“So that would be our goal—that it's seen as something that is so beneficial that it's required for employees to take.”