UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — More Penn State students who are struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns will be able to find help when and where they need it thanks to a gift from two University leaders. Rodney P. Kirsch, senior vice president for development and alumni relations, and Michele S. “Mitch” Kirsch, associate dean for student affairs in the Schreyer Honors College, have committed $50,000 to help launch the Embedded Counselor Program, which will position a therapist in one of Penn State’s residence halls.
The new program is the latest initiative by Penn State Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) in its effort to support students in need. CAPS has also been designated as the recipient of the Class of 2016’s gift, a decision that helped to inspire the Kirsches’ commitment.
“The mental health challenges students face are a ‘silent crisis’ in our opinion, a real crisis with little or no voice or visibility,” Mitch Kirsch said. “This must change. The Class of 2016’s choice to benefit CAPS with their class gift is quite a commentary on how pervasive psychological concerns are among our students. We applaud the maturity of the seniors’ decision to support their peers and all the students who will follow them, and we hope that our own gift will also draw attention to the need for excellent and innovative mental health services.”
The Kirsches understand the pressures faced by students both through their professional roles at the University and as parents of a current student and a recent graduate. The embedded counselor position is a priority of the Parent Philanthropy Program, which seeks support from families of current students and graduates. “We know that the Penn State experience is shaped by so much more than what happens in the classroom,” said Rod Kirsch. “The Parent Philanthropy Program understands that, too, and we hope that more families will take the opportunity to support initiatives that will enhance the learning environment for all students.”
The first CAPS embedded counselor will be appointed for the 2016-17 academic year, and he or she will be based in one of Penn State’s undergraduate residence hall complexes. Offering a range of services, including walk-in risk assessments, one-on-one counseling appointments, and group sessions around topics of common concern, the embedded counselor will be available to students who may be reluctant to seek help in the more formal setting of the CAPS office in the Student Health Center. The new position will also help to relieve the growing pressure on CAPS resources and staff.
“Across higher education, campus counseling centers are experiencing acute increases in demand for the services and support they offer, and that’s true at Penn State as well,” said Dennis Heitzmann, the director of CAPS. In 2014-15 alone, more than 3,600 students sought help from CAPS, an increase of 32 percent over the last five years. Heitzmann points to many factors driving this growing need, including the intense academic pressure felt by many students. Broader awareness has also led students to seek help with problems, such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, sexual abuse, and addiction, that may have gone unaddressed in the past.
Heitzmann said, “The Kirsches’ gift to launch the Embedded Counselor Program will let us provide more contact hours with students, shortening the waiting lists that delay care and treatment. Moreover, it will create a presence in the daily lives of the students, helping to ‘normalize’ the idea of psychological support and offering this support in a setting that may feel more accessible and comfortable. We’re profoundly grateful to Rod and Mitch for allowing us to pioneer this new initiative, and we believe with the support of other donors and Penn State Student Affairs, which is partnering with us in this effort, we can grow the Embedded Counselor Program and reach students who might otherwise not receive the help they need.”
Heitzmann also offered thanks to those graduating seniors who have already supported the Class of 2016 gift, an endowment that will generate flexible funds for CAPS in perpetuity. “Like the Kirsches, those of us at CAPS are inspired by the commitment of Penn State’s seniors to promoting good mental health,” said Heitzmann. “Together, we can create a community where all students receive the support that they need to thrive.”
Supporters like the Kirsches are invaluable partners in fulfilling the University's land-grant mission of education, research and service. Private gifts from alumni and friends enrich the experiences of students both in and out of the classroom, expand the research and teaching capacity of our faculty, enhance the University's ability to recruit and retain top students and faculty, and help to ensure that students from every economic background have access to a Penn State education. The University's colleges and campuses are now enlisting the support of alumni and friends to advance a range of unit-specific initiatives.