Serving the mental health and wellness needs of Virginia Tech students across the commonwealth continues to drive the work of Virginia Tech’s Mental Health Task Force and its progress on recommendations presented in its April 2019 report. Embedded counselors in multiple colleges, psychiatry residents in Cook Counseling Center, enhanced research and evaluation, and increased training to assist students in distress are advancing the university’s mental health initiatives under the auspices of Student Affairs.

Christopher Flynn, executive director of Mental Health Initiatives, leads the coordination of efforts to implement the recommendations of the Task Force. “In collaboration with Laura Hungerford, department head for Population Health Sciences in the [Virginia-Maryland] College of Veterinary Medicine, we focused on the broad recommendations of the Task Force which required specific and numerous action steps to enhance and support the mental health of the entire Virginia Tech community,” said Flynn.

The Mental Health Task Force, charged by Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke, focused on identifying factors affecting student mental health that included the social, cultural, and biological impacts that can influence the development and treatment of mental health issues. The task force, led by Chris Wise, assistant vice president for Student Affairs, also identified issues associated with mental health services currently available on the campus, factors that impact how the university may address existing needs, and plans for future support of mental health programs for the institution.

“Well-being is an integral component of student success,” said Wise. “Our task force brought together leaders from academics, Student Affairs, the medical profession and, most importantly, our students to guide a vision for continued mental health support for Virginia Tech students. It is exciting to see many of the task force recommendations continuing to evolve in multiple administrative units of campus, as we can all play a role in helping our students live a healthy, balanced life.”

Prompted by recommendations from the Mental Health Task Force, the university is in the process of hiring three additional counselors who will be embedded in the College of Engineering, College of Science, and Pamplin College of Business to more directly support the needs of students in three of Virginia Tech’s largest colleges. Flynn is leading these search committees with representatives from Cook Counseling Center, Hokie Wellness, and each of the colleges. “This is an excellent example of Student Affairs and the academic colleges collaborating to meet student needs,” Flynn said.

As students continue to seek mental health services at Virginia Tech, increasing the access to a full range of services led to a collaboration with the psychiatric residency program at LewisGale Medical Center. Brian Wood, program director for the psychiatry residency program, worked with James Reinhard, medical director for the Cook Counseling Center, to allow third-year psychiatric residents to spend two days per week at Cook Counseling. Already licensed physicians, the residents combine to give Cook Counseling the equivalent of two full-time positions in psychiatry at no cost to the university.

The task force also recommended the university increase mental health research and outcome evaluation. Under the direction of Bethany Rallis, Virginia Tech has collaborated with the Healthy Minds study, which was sent to Virginia Tech students in 2018, and then in February of 2020.

When the university was forced to transition to online programming because of COVID-19, an updated Healthy Minds study survey was sent to students so that Virginia Tech could assess the mental health effects of the pandemic on students. The data from that survey has been collected and is in the process of analysis to determine how best to measure the effects of the pandemic on mental health and to guide services to students in this new environment.

In addition to the focus on treatment, education and prevention regarding mental health are an important initiative for the university community. Hokie Wellness, Cook Counseling, and an advisory group of students, faculty, and staff have looked at specific training models for education and prevention. One offering is in a gatekeeper suicide prevention model Question, Persuade and Refer (QPR). All resident advisors in Housing and Residential Life, as well as all incoming cadets in the Corps, receive QPR training prior to the start of the semester.

Further, staff members from Hokie Wellness and Cook Counseling will receive instructor training in Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). Human Resources is collaborating on ways to facilitate opportunities for staff and faculty to receive training in both QPR and MHFA.

In an effort to promote and advance the task force recommendations and multiple mental health initiatives being developed and expanded across the campus, an advisory group of students, faculty, and staff has addressed a primary recommendation to guide implementation and activation of a mental health awareness campaign for the university. The advisory group is engaging faculty and student groups to determine a theme, focus areas, and communication resources to promote mental health support and services for students in need.

“With the importance of awareness and engagement of the campus community, the advisory group is working through the challenges of launching a campaign in the midst of pandemic in order to continue moving these essential initiatives forward,” said Flynn. “Given that there is no health without mental health, a university focus on mental wellness and resilience will maximize student success.”