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Credit: Megan Jones

Counseling and Psychological Services launched I CARE — a training program to help peers and advisers better understand mental health and consequently help each other — nearly four years ago after four students died by suicide in the 2013-2014 academic year alone.

Since then, the program has expanded its reach to target specific student groups and to train members of the faculty and staff as well. About 2,500 people have been trained since I CARE's inception in April 2014, and each year over 700 people are trained. So far, 436 have been trained in the 2017-2018 academic year. CAPS staff plans on hosting four more sessions this semester, according to Director of Outreach and Prevention Services Meeta Kumar. 

Overall, 44 percent of all trainees have been faculty while 56 percent have been students, among which 52 percent have been undergraduates, Kumar said.

“The diversity of where staff and faculty were coming from was really amazing,” said Associate Director of the Master of Public Health Program Moriah Hall, who attended a faculty training on Feb. 23. “It was a good indicator that people across the University see the value of coming to this training.”

Credit: Biruk Tibebe

Associate Director of of the Master of Public Health Program Mariah Hall was one of the faulty that attended training for iCare.

Faculty and students each attend separate trainings, which are usually open to the Penn community. However, CAPS also holds additional sessions for specific groups on campus. 

Greek organization leaders, athletics coaches, and members of the Asian American Pacific Student Coalition have undergone I CARE training before. The training is required for various other groups, including residential advisors, computer science teaching assistants, and faculty wellness ambassadors

This training continues to be tested as mental health remains at the forefront of the campus dialogue. Since 2013, 14 students have died by suicide, and the administration has continued to announce steps to try and combat mental health on campus. 

Penn reconvened its mental health task force last summer. It concluded that while ongoing initiatives around mental health were adequately addressing student needs, students on campus still indicated an increased desire for dialogue around mental health at Penn and what administrators can do to improve it.  

Penn launched the wellness website this January and the administration held the Campus Conversation was on Oct. 30. It set out to start a discussion on what the University could do to foster wellness in the wake of student deaths, natural disasters, and political instability. 

Since the launch of I CARE, the length of the session has decreased from seven to three hours after participants requested the training run for a shorter time. 

CAPS transferred parts of the lecture of the seven-hour training to an online module that participants must now complete beforehand. The change allowed CAPS to make the three hours as hands-on as possible with dialogue and role-plays, according to Kumar.

“We knew that to continue to do it in a seven hour format would limit the reach,” Kumar said. “Between three and seven hours there was really no discernable difference in the outcomes we saw, so it made sense that three hours would be preferable.”

Although Hall said the trainings felt short to her, Undergraduate Assembly President Michelle Xu, who was trained in I CARE for the UA last week, said students reported the training being “very long.”

“The professionals have tailored down as much as possible,” Xu said. "It’s just hard sometimes for students to find three hours in their schedule."

Participants answer an evaluation survey immediately after each training. Since 2014, about 98 percent of trainees have consistently reported that they would recommend I CARE to someone else, according to Kumar. Participants retain what they learned 12 months after training and have reported being able to apply their skills, according to a journal article by Kumar and other CAPS staff published this month.

Credit: Ananya Chandra

“The role play was so helpful to me,” Hall said. “If there’s something I’m noticing that I don’t know how to deal with before, I feel like I have more practical ability and skill to deal with it now.”

Jennifer Pinto-Martin, Faculty Senate chair-elect and director of the Master of Public Health Program, received I CARE training in 2015 after helping support an international doctoral student who reported feeling suicidal.

“It was very real that all of the sudden you have responsibility for these people you teach,” Pinto-Martin said. “It was very much a scary experience for me.”

Besides teaching participants how to refer students to resources on campus, one of the core parts of I CARE is learning to distinguish between stress, distress, and crisis. Since her training, Pinto-Martin said she has supported a few graduate students who felt “severely depressed at the point of dropping out” and was able to analyze their situations at the time.

“It was situational; there were things that happened in her life that precipitated that depression,” Pinto-Martin said about one student. “I was able to recognize that and say, ‘She’s going to be okay, I just have to help her through this rough period.’ That rough period was a year and now she’s thriving.”