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Mental Health Group at college campus
Dean of Campus Wellness and Student Development Dana Manzo speaks with Beacon students.

By Beacon Staff

There has been a growing public interest and awareness around mental health over the past decade and that awareness hasn’t escaped college campuses. At Beacon College, that has translated into innovations and a greater range of options for students — many of which could not have come at a better time. 

Last year, the college added to its roster of services, including hiring wellness ambassadors: Beacon students assigned to the Counseling Center and charged with helping fellow students via interactive activities, workshops and research on health and wellness topics, among other tasks. 

Beacon also partnered with an outside agency to offer a wellness line: a phone counseling service available to students 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A mobile application that allows them to access a myriad of topics on self-care is now also available to students struggling with mental health at the touch of a button. 

“The increase in demand has inspired us to think more creatively about how to meet the needs of our students,” said Dana Manzo, dean of campus wellness and student development. “And I think having that awareness of the importance of mental health [in a student’s education] has been really helpful in validating what we’re doing.”  

In addition, the college created a triage system to assess students’ level of need and expanded referrals to other areas, an idea centered on the notion that all departments should be instrumental in helping solve a crisis and that some problems can be best resolved by consulting partners outside the counseling unit. 

“Sometimes a student may come into the Counseling Center, where they’ll be assessed by a site counselor, but maybe it’s actually not counseling that they need; maybe they need to meet with their learning specialist or a community educator, or maybe they need to get more involved in activities, and so we can refer them to the correct place … and that allows us to be proactive and to have our counselors available to deal with more severe issues,” Manzo added. 

These measures helped ease the pressure on the college’s Counseling Center. For context, before the pandemic, the center saw 50 percent of the student body referred to its services for some type of mental health assistance during a given semester. During the pandemic, that number jumped to 70 percent. 

Preventative care is key to good mental health. And coping skills to address anxiety, depression, all of which spiked during the pandemic for a number of reasons, provide crucial tools for navigating college life successfully. 

To teach those skills, Manzo recently developed and implemented a psychology elective on emotion regulation and social problem-solving, an approach based on dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that emphasizes mindfulness. 

Some of those same tips are also shared during new student orientation and through a series of skills workshops offered throughout the year. They are also embedded in the orientation parents receive at the college. 

“I’ve been at Beacon for over 10 years and, when I started here, it was nothing like the mental health issues I’m seeing now, including a lack of ability to cope,” said Manzo. 

“So, now we do a lot more skill building, professional development and suicide prevention awareness, we start teaching emotion regulation, distress tolerance skills very early on and use multiple platforms to give students an opportunity to understand the content in ways best suited to their learning style. We are mindful to balance skill building with support and validation to create an environment where students feel they belong and where they matter,” she added. 

Since 2018, Beacon has offered a virtual college transition program known as Navigator PREP that helps students adapt as they move from high-school to college life. Cohorts can meet for three months, six months or nine months, depending on students’ preferences. And they also include parent workshops designed to help parents help students succeed. 

James Borden, transition coordinator, said the program is instrumental in tackling topics that lead to better mental health. Via Zoom meetings, students learn to identify areas where they need academic support and how those needs tie into their particular learning challenge. They also learn how to access assistive technologies and practice self-advocacy. Study tips, socialization skills, dealing with setbacks, time management strategies and emotional self-regulation are also an integral part of the curriculum. 

All of this translates into less anxious, more successful students, Borden said. 

“I like to tell my students that going away to college is a very big step in life; comparable to things like getting married, raising a family, moving, and getting a new job.  Those are stressful times,” he added. 

“What I’m trying to work on with students is giving them the skills that they need to be successful and sometimes that can be simple things; but if applied, they are things that will definitely decrease stress and have an impact.”