UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s Senior Director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Ben Locke has seen “something of a cultural shift” in recent years as mental health and wellness awareness has become a greater and greater part of the national dialogue.
Over the past decade, Locke said there has been a significant increase in students turning to counseling services at campuses across the nation. At Penn State, the number has increased by more than 50% over the last 10 years. “That’s actually a positive sign,” Locke said. “That increase doesn’t mean there are suddenly more people dealing with mental health issues, but rather more people are reaching out for the help they need.”
Penn State has made significant investments in mental health and wellness resources for students in recent years, including a substantial CAPS funding increase from President Eric Barron in 2017, as well as support from the 2020 and 2016 senior class gifts. The University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA) has also helped create and lead the “Red Folder Initiative,” which aims to educate faculty and staff members at all campuses on how to identify signs a student might be struggling with their mental health or wellness, as well as resources available to benefit them.
Locke encourages all Penn Staters to take an active role in looking after their own health and wellness, and to also look out and care for their fellow Penn Staters.
“If you’re struggling, seeking help is absolutely a sign of strength, not weakness,” Locke said. “And if you see something, do something. If you think a friend or peer is struggling in some way, check in, ask them how they are, or reach out for a consultation with a trusted source, like CAPS.
“We’re all Penn Staters, and we as a community have to recognize the role we all play in providing support, assistance and encouragement to each other.”
Mental health and wellness resources
There are many wellness and mental health resources available to support and empower Penn State students, including:
- Counseling and mental health services available through CAPS, which can reached at 814-863-0395 for University Park students, or at each Commonwealth Campus location;
- You@PSU, a free online wellness portal to help you navigate your time and experiences at Penn State. Create a confidential profile to discover hundreds of personalized tips and resources to tackle your academics, career path, stress, and social life.
- WellTrack, a free app that offers interactive tools for building resilience and managing stress, depression, and anxiety self-help videos; and guidance in determining next steps.
- Life Hacks, step-by-step wellness kits designed to help you navigate and demystify some of the more perplexing parts of being human. Instructors can utilize these as pre-packaged extra-credit options for their students.
- CAPS Chat, informal, one-on-one, drop-in consultation for students with CAPS counselors, currently held virtually. Meetings are free and students simply schedule online.
- Drop-in groups focus on peer support and discussion. Stop on by at your convenience during the group time. These are not therapy groups and no appointment is required. Topics cover Wellness, Sexual and Gender Diversity, Women of Color Empowerment, Black and Latino Male Empowerment, Interfaith Dialogues, and addiction recovery.
- The Office of Health Promotion and Wellness at University Park, offers virtual wellness and stress management programing;
- Free wellness sessions on topics including stress, sleep, nutrition, physical activities, and healthy relationships and sexual health,;
- Campus Recreation programming including personal, group and virtual fitness classes, as well as esports competitions;
- A full range of medical services, physical therapy, preventative care and immunization services available through University Health Services;
- The Healthy Penn State blog, featuring nutritious recipes and fitness, stress reducers, mindfulness and sleep tips;
- A Health and Wellness Guide for students during COVID-19; and
- The Penn State Crisis Line (877-229-6400) and the Crisis Text Line (text “LIONS” to 741741), which are open 24/7 to Penn Staters dealing with both crisis and non-crisis situations — including faculty, staff and students at all campuses who have a question about someone else. The licensed professionals with the Penn State Crisis Line can help evaluate each individual situation, offer guidance and help connect callers with further resources if appropriate.
Additional crisis resources
For those in immediate crisis, services through CAPS are available without a wait. Locke says a “crisis” can include thoughts of harming oneself or others, loss of housing, a recent death in the family or any other traumatic event that profoundly and negatively impacts one’s day-to-day life and ability to function.
If you want to connect with a mental health professional in the event of a crisis:
- For immediate or life-threatening emergencies, call 911.
- Call CAPS at 814-863-0395 during regular business hours, or connect with the counseling offices available at each of Penn State’s Commonwealth Campuses.
- Call the Penn State Crisis Line — a 24/7 toll-free service staffed by licensed professionals available to all Penn State students, and those concerned about a student, at University Park and Commonwealth Campuses — at 877-229-6400.
- Text the 24/7 Crisis Text Line, another 24/7 resource available to all community members, by texting “LIONS” to 741741.
Students in crisis may also connect with the Office of Student Care and Advocacy, which works with students struggling with everything from medical emergencies and hospitalization to food or housing insecurity. Student Care and Advocacy works with partners across the University to empower students impacted by medical issues, mental health crises, food and housing insecurity and more. Students at Commonwealth Campuses may also benefit from services offered by the Office of Student Affairs at their individual campus.
Mental health and wellness tips and strategies
Locke acknowledged that college students across the country have experienced emotional, social, career and academic losses throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and continue to experience insecurity or doubt in their lives.
“Many students are struggling with uncertainty about next steps, how unknown events will continue to affect them, and what to do when these things happen,” Locke said.
“Anxiety is your body’s way of communicating with you that something worrisome is happening and that you should pay attention,” he said. “While not all experiences of anxiety or stress require professional help, I encourage students who are experiencing anxiety to give yourself a little bit of time to see how things change. If you find that you’re not making progress and continue to feel anxious, nervous or upset on a regular basis -- that is when you should reach out for help.”
James Dillard, distinguished professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State who researches how people experience and manage fear of infectious diseases, said that “while feeling unsure or even fearful in uncertain times is normal, there are also strategies you can use to help regulate your emotions.”
As the semester begins, Dillard said that taking breaks from the news and social media can help manage stress and boost an individual’s well-being. Individuals should gauge the impact the news related to the pandemic has on them while being mindful of factors such as how important it is for them to be up to date on the latest COVID-related research, and adjust their media intake and interpersonal communication on that basis, according to Dillard.
Dillard and Locke both also shared that taking proper care of your body and overall wellness can help contribute to positive mental health. The CDC has advised people to continue to exercise regularly, get plenty of sleep, eat well-balanced and healthy meals at regular intervals, as well as avoid consumption of alcohol and drugs.
“It is important to be honest with yourself and others in your life about what you’re going through, what your needs are, and how you’re struggling rather than trying to shut those feelings down,” said Locke. “As we continue to live through these uncertain times, it is so important to make space and time in your life to stay connected to your friends and family, hobbies and interests that are important to you, and your connection to a bigger purpose in the world.”