SRU Student Support Office evolves to meet needs during the pandemic
Karla Fonner, Slippery Rock University’s director of student support, has led the University’s efforts to help students experiencing distress that interferes with learning, development and success. Her office worked on more than 500 cases related to pandemic behavioral wellness during the 2020 fall semester.
Jan. 15, 2021
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Slippery Rock University recognized the importance of student support by developing systems to assist those encountering challenges, crises and other circumstances that could interfere with their path to success. And while the pandemic may have heightened those barriers, thanks to the continued emergence of SRU's Student Support Office, the University is not only responding to needs but raising its level of service.
"We're moving away from a place where we are just reacting to referrals and instead becoming an office that's more proactive," said Karla Fonner, who has served as SRU's director of student support since 2014 and has worked at the University since 2002. "We're focusing more on prevention and providing resources to help students develop more holistically."
As part of SRU's Student Affairs division, the Student Support Office is a central location where faculty, staff, students, parents or community members can refer students experiencing or causing distress that interferes with learning, development and success. The University began offering formal student intervention services in 2013 and since that time, has increased case managers as the needs continued to present themselves.
"This type of department is new and evolving at colleges and universities across the country," Fonner said. "We've been among the first to expand these types of services outside of residence life departments and I see this becoming something that's going to continue to grow across higher education. It's something that students are coming to expect."
The care referral cases to the Student Support Office have increased from 406 in its first year in 2013-14 to 757 in 2017-18 and 1,870 in 2019-20. That equates to a case increase of 360% while the undergraduate enrollment during that time period expanded by only 16%.
"Awareness of our services and the need to get help are a big part of why we're seeing such a dramatic increase in numbers," Fonner said. "I don't necessarily think that more problems are occurring or that we have more students who are having concerns, it's just as a campus community, we didn't know what we could for these students previously and now there is a system in place for questions and concerns to be addressed more thoughtfully, concisely and consistently and the word has gotten out."
The types of referrals the office deals with range from financial and food insecurities to domestic and criminal issues. However, a universal issue that has further presented itself in recent years is mental health.
"We will definitely exceed 1,800 cases this year because not only do we have the pandemic we're dealing with but we knew before that that college students were not in a good place with mental health," Fonner said. "The numbers for college students with mental health problems have increased in numbers and severity. They're experiencing these problems in a way that is significantly impacted their lives and their ability to do their schoolwork."
According to the American College Health Association's National College Health Assessment for spring 2020, 38% of undergraduate college students nationwide reported at least one ongoing or chronic mental health disorder, including 18% with both depression and anxiety. Also, 27% of college students nationally scored as significant risk of suicidal behavior on the screening tool, the Suicide Behavior Questionnaire-Revised.
"College students and people in general are more disconnected than they've ever been because of the pandemic," Fonner said. "That has really shed light on some already existing mental health concerns and some lack of resources or connection to resources. Right now is the perfect time for us to take a good, hard look at how we are connecting students to appropriate support and how we make sure that everyone has at least a general knowledge base for how to take good care of themselves and those around them."
The pandemic has presented new challenges that college students would not otherwise encounter, including feelings of isolation, increased financial strains that include working because a parent lost a job, or becoming a caregiver because a family member is sick or because a sibling is learning remotely at home instead of at school.
During the fall semester, the Student Support Office received 503 care network referrals that it considered "pandemic behavioral wellness." Those included staff conducting weekly check-ins with students who were in quarantine or isolation and providing coping strategies and other guidance and resources.
"Sometimes it's just letting a student who had to be in quarantine and isolation know that someone still cares about them," Fonner said. "Our staff members made these phone calls and offered help, even if it's just figuring out a way to do laundry if they couldn't leave their living space."
In addition to Fonner, the Student Support Office includes three other full-time staff members: Earl Coburn, assistant director of outreach and case management; Sunshine Mushrush, assistant director, case manager; and Alison Stucchio, clerk/typist. The office also has a graduate assistant.
Care network referrals are made through an online submission form and students are either referred to a one-on-one meeting with a certified case manager, who conducts a needs assessment, or for review by a Care Response Team, a multidisciplinary unit consisting of staff from Student Support, the Student Counseling Center, Student Health Services and Residence Life. Collectively, the Care Response Team tracks student progress, creates plans to keep situations from escalating or enlisting other campus partners for assistance.
Examples of the proactive measures taken by the Student Support Office include Boost, the peer education outreach program where students focus on personal, social and emotional wellness for their fellow students. Also the office is offering training for faculty and staff, including an online training simulator, titled "At-Risk," that features a role-play conversation to address students' mental health needs. Nearly 20% of SRU faculty and staff have participated in this training since it was launched in October 2020.
More information about the Student Support Office is available on the SRU website, by calling 724.738.2121 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, people can access the office's Concern Center webpage, which provides categorized resources related to student support, as well as a link to submit a Care Report for themselves or on behalf of a student.
MEDIA CONTACT: Justin Zackal | 724.738.4854 | email@example.com