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Summit Discusses Health and Safety Issues on College Campuses

College students’ mental health and well being in a time of a pandemic and their safety when new rules on sexual assault investigations kick in on Aug. 14 were the main issues discussed on Wednesday at the annual EVERFI Campus Prevention Network Summit.

This year, the conference is virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, more than 800 higher education leaders and organizations are expected to participate in the two-day event during which health and safety issues on university campuses will be analyzed.

On Wednesday, Tom Davidson, founder and CEO of EVERFI, opened the summit by addressing the ongoing racial justice protests across the country following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in policy custody in Minneapolis last week.

“We know we are not okay and we know that this affects many of us in a very different way than others, we want to give voice to that at this time,” he said. “EVERFI was created to go after many of these tough challenges that we will talk about not just in the news and not just at dinner tables tonight but also at this conference in the coming days.”

Davidson said that “while our hearts hurt, we know that this conversation and the conversations that follow are going to allow us to do this important work even better in the future.”

Erin McClintockErin McClintock

In the keynote address, human rights activist and author of Know My Name: A Memoir, Chanel Miller, discussed her experience with sexual assault.

She said when her sexual assault statement went viral, she was approached by the media to tell her story immediately as it was still relevant in the news cycle. At the time, she wasn’t ready to talk about it, but three years later she did.

“When I came out, there was still immense response and immense caring,” she said. “And that showed me that this isn’t important just when it’s in the headlines, it will always be relevant and we will always need to pay attention and stay fighting.”

In light of the new Title IX regulations to do with investigating campus sexual assault, Miller said it is imperative colleges and universities are fair from the start.

Miller said what happens with due process is that often the accused are assumed to be innocent until proven guilty, and often, the accusers are not assumed to be telling the truth until proven otherwise.

“I want to make sure there is due process on both sides, that we cannot go in disbelief and force her [an accuser] to prove that she is credible and that she should be listened to,” she said. “So, I take issue with that.”

In her view, the new guidelines, released last month by the Department of Education, give more power to the accused and don’t focus enough on figuring out how to support a victim and prevent assaults from happening again.

Miller and others also discussed mental health in speeches as well as in breakout sessions and plenaries throughout the day.

“We are figuring out an entirely new way of being,” during the pandemic and this time of social unrest, Miller said. “So, paying attention and understanding that we are entering a new reality, we should not hold ourselves to the same standards of productivity or expectations we had because the circumstances are different.”

Erin McClintock, senior director of impact and education at EVERFI, discussed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ mental health and higher education as a whole.

“There’s no better time than now to look at what we are doing to support the mental health and well being of our students and [to] look at what we need to do differently,” she said. “This is our chance for a fresh start.”

She cited data from Active Minds, which found that 20% of college students reported that their mental health has significantly worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic and 55% don’t know how or where to seek professional treatment.

“As we think about mental health in the post-COVID-19 world, these data highlight that prioritizing will be more important than ever,” said McClintock. Institutions need to think holistically “about where students are, what hardships they may have experienced and how we can cast a wide net of support around them.”

To address growing mental health concerns, McClintock laid out short-term, mid-term and long-term recommendations for universities and colleges.

Dr. Sarah LipsonDr. Sarah Lipson

In the short term, she said schools need to focus on the basic needs of students, fine-tune partnerships with organizations, consider ways to make mental health resources available and teach soft-skill languages.

Mid-term recommendations include analyzing pre-COVID-19 mental health work, identifying ways to collect data on what is currently working, tying together academics and wellness and asking students what their needs are.

Lastly, long-term suggestions look to providing more flexibility, online and offline options, having mental health options for every student and making wellness a cornerstone of the college experience.

Dr. Sarah Lipson, assistant professor in the Department of Health Law Policy and Management at the Boston University School of Public Health, said mental health and well being should be thought of as part of the college curriculum. And since faculty members spend the most time with students, they should serve as gatekeepers, she said.

Since campuses shut down because of the pandemic, many colleges have switched to telehealth and virtual health resource options. However, despite the efforts to continue offering services online, mental health disparities remain.

According to Lipson, the treatment gap is much wider for students of color, and discrimination is a predictor of mental health. Students of color are more likely to experience discrimination and trauma as well as have their mental health negatively impact their academic performance.

“There’s just so many human resources and touchpoints that are there for students and they are not equally reaching all students,” she added.

Lipson also said that community college students appear to struggle more with their mental health and are less likely to go to therapy than students at four-year institutions.

She said it is important to discuss available resources community colleges have and ways they can meet the mental health needs of their students.

“I think that’s one of the biggest challenges that community colleges face,” she said.

Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].

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