Dr. Jay Darr is the Director of the University Counseling Center (UCC) at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), a member of the American Talent Initiative’s (ATI) Academic Equity Community of Practice (CoP). As part of our Academic Equity Interview Blog series (for our first post we interviewed Claremont McKenna’s Nyree Gray on campus climate), we asked Dr. Darr to help us understand Pitt’s approach to improving student mental health. Addressing mental health is imperative for addressing academic inequities, especially as lower income students, students of color, and other underrepresented students are more likely to experience mental health concerns and experience pandemic-related hardships. In this interview, Dr. Darr shares his insights on the importance of mental and emotional well-being, the relationship between the current moment and Pitt students’ mental health, and opportunities for other institutions to improve student wellness. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Mental health support for students is more important than ever before, particularly given the pandemic and other stressors (e.g., concerns about racial inequities, climate change, academic success, career paths). How have the pandemic and these other stressors affected students’ mental health on campus? What changes have you seen and has anything surprised you?

The COVID-19 pandemic and our country’s systemic oppression has taken a toll on our students in many different ways. One is just being exhausted with the uncertainty of everything. Another is a tendency for students to overschedule to avoid missing out on opportunities. As we return to campus, students are filling up their schedules and getting heavily involved in student organizations, which has created more stressors. This is happening especially to second year students, but also to some of our first year students as well. 

As we continue in dialogue around anti-racism and systemic oppression, there has been this sense among students of “OK, what’s next? What are some actions that the university is taking?” What we have seen across the institution that I think we have done a good job of (something which didn’t happen in the past) is naming what is happening—naming racism, naming oppression, naming that we’re in an academic environment that is designed to be oppressive. Being able to name “it” validates a person’s, a community’s, and a people’s truth and creates a condition for action, which we have seen throughout the Division of Student Affairs and the institution. But it’s important to note that we still have work to do and we need to continue engaging students and colleagues in this extremely important work.

What steps did the University of Pittsburgh take to understand the mental health challenges amongst the university’s student population, raise awareness of these challenges, and plan for change? How has this process changed since the pandemic, if at all?

I think the key to how we address mental health is that we can’t use the same methods or operate counseling centers in the same ways that we have in the past. We really have to be nimble and agile, get students’ wellness information in real time, and make data-driven decisions (for example, through data gleaned from surveys such as the #RealCollege Survey). We have to keep the pulse on the students by having real, raw conversations with students to really find out what’s happening. 

It is a challenge to fill [counseling] groups, get people to come to sessions, or have folks attend workshops, and particularly getting people to attend on a regular basis. So the question becomes: How do we meet the students where they are? 

What we’ve done at the University Counseling Center (UCC) since I began my tenure is to meet with students regularly in their spaces, in-person and/or virtual, including meeting with student leaders, BIPOC students, students in Greek life, international students, and graduate and professional student organizations. We have ongoing meetings scheduled so that we have real-time information to understand student needs, which informs service enhancement and opportunities to support student well-being. In addition, we have partnered with colleagues in Residence Life and specific academic programs to provide embedded counselors and services to meet students where they are and provide support that focus on their unique experiences either as new students or related to an academic program. So instead of having students come to us in the so-called traditional way, we [the UCC Team] will be present in various campus spaces and meet students, and have authentic or raw conversations about experiences and well-being 

Furthermore, students are also taking charge of mental health on campus. To highlight something that undergraduate students are doing, students came together and formed a Student Mental Health Coalition, and they are enhancing mental health awareness. The coalition is composed of mental health liaisons from organizations and affinity groups on campus, and they are creating awareness and providing UCC real time feedback so we can pivot programs and services as needed. Other beneficial things we do are monitoring social media and having conversations with our colleagues across the nation, particularly those in the counseling center space. This assists with reimagining “clinical work” and “well-being work”; [traditional methods of] therapy does not have to be what comes to our mind when we think of “therapy,” such as logging on to a video conference platform or coming to an office speaking with a mental health professional. This reimagination has been impactful, and we are observing  peer-to-peer support increasing across campus, as well as an increase in help-seeking behavior and a steady shift to a culture of supporting student well-being as a shared responsibility across campus.

How is the University of Pittsburgh measuring its success in providing adequate support and services for mental wellness, particularly in response to the current situation and its related challenges (e.g., academic, financial, social)? How will you know if change is taking hold?

At the UCC, we analyze data received through our services to understand the efficacy of our services in the following areas: interpersonal functioning, overall well-being, and identity and voice affirmation. We also look at retention and persistence. Pitt’s membership in the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) and the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (AUCCCD) enhances our ability to report outcomes, develop business cases for programs and services, and recruit and retain diverse staff and trainees. 

To understand the needs of our diverse student population, we lean on surveys that focus on student well-being, like those from #RealCollege and the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA). These surveys are important and useful in the examination of trends; however, surveys still present a challenge with understanding needs in real time. For example, if we conduct the survey this spring, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re meeting the needs of students who are entering in Fall 2022—as demonstrated by the changes and uncertainty that we’re currently experiencing. This is why being on the ground and having real time conversations with students is so important in understanding student needs and staying informed on how and when to pivot programs and services. This requires the counseling center’s team to reflect the diversity—visible and invisible—of the student population, focus on staff  strengths, maintain a clear scope of services, and advocate for a shared responsibility to support student well-being.  

How do faculty and staff factor into your work? What can faculty and staff do in order to support student mental well-being? 

We encourage faculty and staff involvement in creating a campus culture of well-being. Students are in class an average of 15 hours a week, so increasing faculty and staff awareness of how they can contribute  to and support student well-being, as well as sharing specific tips, is crucial. Even simple tips can help—for example, when I taught, I assigned due dates at 11:59pm. But that’s really unhelpful for a student to get adequate sleep, so looking at this and saying “OK, what about having an assignment due at 7, 8 or 9pm?” Another way to support student well-being in classes is to reflect on “what can I do before class starts?” and possibly having a five-minute mindfulness activity before starting class to help students focus and become grounded in the moment, rather than just going directly into lecture. 

The other piece is offering training for faculty and staff to learn and develop tools to support student well-being. We have the Mental Health Champion program where cohorts of staff, faculty, and students can choose to go through five hours of training to increase knowledge on emotional well-being and learn skills to support others in the campus community. 

It’s also important to support the well-being of faculty, staff, and administrators. We’re all experiencing a wide range of emotions, and how we give meaning to the current environment is different for all of us. We are working with our colleagues in Life Solutions to ensure that we, as faculty and staff, are supported. We’re working to speak the same “well-being language,” using the pillars of well-being, so that our campus culture embodies and supports well-being for the entire community. If we can at least come to the understanding that “it’s OK not to be OK,” this can open the door to a wealth of possibilities. 

How can you scale the efforts of the institution’s mental wellness and well-being efforts? 

Having shared responsibility and empowering students, particularly peer support or peer-to-peer interactions, are key. The counseling center is a support system, a conduit, that can provide training or consultation for peer-to-peer support.

Demand for the counseling center is high, and I am encouraged by students reaching out to us—it’s powerful and speaks to the destigmatization of mental health. But the capacity of the counseling center itself is limited. So, the question then becomes, “how can we create a shared responsibility for helping students?” It’s important to have flexibility for people to come in and out of care. We try to think about how we scale capacity for students to engage in other wellness activities that may be more meaningful than them solely sitting across from a counselor in one-on-one therapy. Is it in a group? Are there other self-help tools? Is it having connections to student organizations? Is it academic support services? Is it about having a raw conversation in the moment? Is it having an informal one-to-one through our “Let’s Talk” service? That’s what we want to tap into: the additional ways to enhance student well-being which is unique, individualized and/or community based.  

Reflecting on your experience at the University of Pittsburgh and the burn out that many campus counselors are experiencing, what advice do you have for other institutions who are embarking on this work?

Every campus and campus culture is different, as is the level of support that campus counseling centers receive. This creates a different set of complexities and concerns, as well as opportunities and strengths, for each institution. So what I would suggest is, first and foremost, listen to students. Listen to students because they are integral to our motivation as mental health and student affairs professionals.

It’s also imperative that we put well-being in the context of: How can we do this work together? Mental health and wellness work is a shared responsibility and a collaborative movement. If the responsibility is all laid on the counseling center, that’s not going to work, as we have seen. Institutional leadership should be talking about what they want the counseling center to be. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH)  out of Penn State has done a great job of developing the Clinical Load Index, which really helps us frame our conversation about how to define clinical capacity and scope of service. Having those conversations with stakeholders (e.g. students, administration, faculty, staff), informed by data, will assist with framing counseling center operations and scaling services to meet student needs.   

Now, speaking mainly to other college counseling center folks, we always talk about session limits, wait lists, or things of that nature. But it’s not just about eliminating one or two of these, because mental health infrastructure is complex and requires an integrated approach, including listening to faculty, staff, students, and the campus community; empowering faculty and staff to tap into and utilize their strengths; creating a culture of well-being and mental health as a shared responsibility; and aligning your policies, procedures, and operations with your scope of service. We found success in this approach, which has led to results including the elimination of the wait list, recruitment and retention of a diverse counseling team, enhanced and expanded services (including but not limited to embedded clinicians), launch of a Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT) program, coordination with campus partners to enhance sexual assault prevention and intervention services, and provision of the Mental Health Champions program.

We’re fortunate here at Pitt to have the resources and support from our division and university leadership. This may not be the case for other institutions, not because they don’t want to support their counseling centers, but because resources may be limited or expectations of counseling center services may not be aligned among stakeholders. So, it’s important to be mindful of such resource limitations and to really speak to the students and see what we can accomplish now through a lens of cultural humility. By being culturally humble, we have the opportunity to meet students where they are and we can avoid creating additional inequities and barriers to mental health care.  

Any parting thoughts, or anything else you’d like to share?

Of course, I always want to start and leave with the students. To any students reading this—you are not alone. We’re here for you. We’re here to see you thrive, to help and to support you in your journey. So don’t hesitate to reach out to your counseling center or to other avenues of support on your campus and in your local community.