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Credit: Isabella Cuan

A possible addition to Penn’s mental health policies and procedures may change how the faculty interacts with students.

Following the report of the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare published in February, the faculty Senate Committee on Students and Educational Policy was given the responsibility of considering follow-up action on the recommendations given by the task force committee.

The committee recommended the creation of a Faculty Ambassador for Mental Health and Wellness, based on the observation of the task force that “while faculty and teaching assistants often observe symptoms of student distress (absences, poor test performance, late papers, etc.), they don’t always know when or how best to intervene.”

Engineering professor Paulo E. Arratia is one of the members of the SCSEP who worked on the creation and now possible implementation of the Faculty Ambassador program.

“One of the things we were discussing in our committee was how can we better involve faculty in the matters of student well-being,” Arratia said. “That was the beginning of the thinking process.”

Arratia said that his committee consulted with co-chairs of the task force: Rebecca Bushnell, School of Arts and Sciences Board of Overseers and professor of English, and Anthony Rostain, Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics and Director of Education for the Department of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine, as well as staff members of Counseling and Psychological Services.

“Talking to Rebecca and Anthony and some other people at CAPS, it became clear we also needed to educate the faculty in the long-term about mental health issues,” he said.

The SCSEP has proposed the idea for Faculty Ambassadors, a role Arratia explained would serve as a “point person” for advising faculty on the resources available to them for helping students struggling with mental health problems.

Each department would have at least one of these ambassadors.

“It is not quite rational to think that all 4500 faculty will be able to be trained with the skills to be effective [in helping students struggling psychologically],” Reed Pyeritz, Faculty Senate chair, professor of Medicine and Genetics and vice-chair for Faculty Affairs in the Department of Medicine, said. “A cadre of faculty will be trained to be a resource.”

The faculty members who are selected as ambassadors will receive training from CAPS in how to recognize students in distress, how to approach them and how to help them, according to CAPS director William Alexander.

It has not yet been determined how the ambassadors will be selected.

Arratia stressed the importance of engaging faculty in tackling the mental health issues on campus.

“One comment that was made to us by CAPS is that if a student, a colleague or a friend refers another student to CAPS, the likelihood that that student will go is low,” he said. “But if a faculty does it, it is more likely a student will actually seek help. So that means that faculty does play a role in the well-being of the students, and therefore the faculty need to be aware of that. That is why we are focusing on the faculty.”

“[Faculty Ambassadors] is an enormous improvement in reaching out to students,” Alexander said. “The faculty are pretty important. They are the eyes and ears of the school. They know the student body better than anyone. If a student is going to exhibit difficulty or stress, the faculty is one of the first people who will know about it.”

“From my point of view, it one of the most pressing recommendations,” Arratia said. “There are other recommendations from the task force on how to improve communications to the students of where the resources are, how to better integrate the resources, the capacity for CAPS ... those are important as well. But we believe this is very much up in there in the priorities of mental health for students because faculty do play an important role.”

Pyeritz said that the program would initially be piloted in the four undergraduate schools to see how it is best implemented and to see how the ambassadors would best be trained.

The proposal for Faculty Ambassadors was presented to and approved by the Faculty Senate earlier this month and will now be recommended to the administration for implementation.

So far, those involved are optimistic about the initiative’s potential.

“I am confident that a lot of people are on board with this program,” Arratia said. “Students would be made aware about it and they will feel, I hope, the benefits of the program.”

As for implementation, Arratia said that the timeline depends on how well-received the program is by the administration, but is hoping that it will be put into place by next academic year if it is approved.

“I strongly believe that this will be beneficial to the students, to the faculty and to the community in general,” he added.

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