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A new intiative aims to give professors advise when encountering a student dealing wtih mental health//Owain West | Contributing Photographer

Credit: Owain West

In the coming months, Penn’s faculty will step into a larger role in the campus-wide effort to address mental health issues among students.

At a Faculty Senate Executive Committee meeting on Sept. 30, faculty from all four undergraduate schools voted to pilot the Faculty Wellness Ambassador program for one year. The program was approved by the Senate Executive Committee in the spring, and stemmed from the recommendations of the Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Wellness.

The program will select “faculty wellness ambassadors” from among the four undergraduate schools, who will be responsible for serving as resources for fellow professors who believe that their students are struggling with mental illness. The ambassadors, who have not yet been chosen,  will receive I-CARE training from Counseling and Psychological Services, which teaches people to recognize signs of mental distress, says CAPS Director Bill Alexander.

The program will not substitute for professional assistance — distressed students will be directed towards CAPS or another resource. But Engineering professor Paulo Arratia, who helped to develop the program, explained that faculty occupy an influential role in students’ lives, and can encourage them to seek the treatment they need.

“Imagine you have a student in distress and if another student — a friend of the student — recommends that the student goes to seek the help. The student may or may not go,” Arratia said. “But if the faculty asks or suggests that a student go seek help, in particular, go to CAPS, it is much more likely that the student seeks help.”

Penn Law School professor and Faculty Senate Past Chair Claire Finkelstein, who also helped develop the program, said that professors can often pick up on signs of mental distress among students when they skip class or fail to turn in assignments — even in large lectures. And in recitations, teaching assistants will ideally benefit from their professors’ training and be able to provide help as well.

“Faculty members have an obligation to serve as moral leaders on these issues, and often they lead by example, so by responding well themselves [they]  help to stimulate appropriate responses among their TAs and among their colleagues,” Finkelstein said.

A major goal of the program is to change the culture surrounding mental health through faculty involvement.

“This would contribute to [that] goal,” Finkelstein said, “so that students would feel that faculty were supportive and faculty were aware that mental health is a serious and important issue on campus.”

The faculty will find a way to assess the program after its first year. If successful, it will be expanded to Penn's graduate schools as well.

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