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New mental health initiative aims to train faculty through CAPS to better understand signs of distress and mental health crises.

Credit: Sophia Lee

A new initiative beginning next academic year will give a small group of faculty a much larger role in helping students who are struggling with mental illness.

In early May, a group of faculty from Penn’s four undergraduate schools will receive I CARE training, which stands for Inquire, Connect, Acknowledge, Respond and Explore, an intensive seven-hour session of training through Counseling and Psychological Services to “learn the signs of distress and mental health crises that can affect college students,” according to the CAPS website.

The I CARE training will be followed by panels or workshops that partner with important resources on campus for students, including CAPS, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Life, said Beth Winkelstein, Vice Provost for Education.

This group of faculty will then go on to serve as Wellness Ambassadors during the 2016-17 academic school year, disseminating the information they learned throughout their respective schools, and encouraging students who they notice may be struggling with mental illness to seek help.

Law professor and past Chair of the Faculty Senate Claire Finkelstein, along with the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, unanimously voted to submit the proposal for this program to the administration last May.

“This was to have been the pilot year of the program,” Finkelstein said, but added, “It’s not for the faculty senate to implement.” They needed to wait for the administration to follow through.

Winkelstein has been instrumental in getting the program started, and said she is glad that the program will have a “full year rather than doing it in a rushed approach.”

“Faculty are often the first ones to notice mental health difficulties, possibly even before peers,” Finkelstein said. “The first thing that students who are having mental health problems do is they stop coming to class.”

The idea for Faculty Wellness Ambassadors came from recommendations from the Mental Health Taskforce, which reported its findings in February of 2015. The task force recommended “Educating and training faculty, staff, students, parents, and families about fostering mental health and responding to students who need help.”

“It was striking to me how few of our colleagues were aware of the signs and symptoms of mental health difficulties, and yet how much they were interested in helping,” Finkelstein said.

She also said that after the I CARE portion, the latter part of the training is slated to be recorded.

“These are resources that might be useful down the line, you can imagine, for other ambassadors or for the general faculty,” she said.

The 2016-17 academic year will be a trial period, and if successful, Finkelstein said she hopes to eventually see “several hundred” Faculty Wellness Ambassadors among all of Penn’s undergraduate and graduate schools.

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