William James College Unveils College Mental Health Initiative and Examines its Origin


In order to fully understand the rise in present-day mental health challenges among college students and young adults in this country, it is essential to examine the multiple lenses through which it can be viewed. Epidemiologists who write about mental health and youth point to a decade, beginning in 2010, during which rates of anxiety and depression among children and young adults in this country rose markedly. As the pandemic descended, forcing folks into isolation, young people’s inability to socialize and cultivate interpersonal relationships compromised their psychosocial development insofar as building trust, autonomy and identity are concerned. 

“Kids are still not doing well with regards to their emotions, their self-esteem, and their relationships……and what we saw in 2020-2021, with COVID-19, was an escalation of an already rising trajectory,” said President Nicholas A. Covino, PsyD, of the pre-pandemic period from which the current mental health crisis sprang. For context, he paints the following picture: The pair of pandemic years represents a minuscule percentage of a 65-year-old adult’s lived experience; that same period equates to 10% of a 20-year-old college student’s life, and 20% of a 10-year-old child’s. “For young people, that's a significant piece of trauma that is not going to be resolved for some time,” said Covino, underscoring the need for increased awareness about the ongoing challenges for young people.

“All of us need to get educated about the lingering effects of the COVID pandemic—especially the older people who are gatekeepers of funds and resources—to ensure we’re devoting the necessary programs and personnel to young people and not neglecting them because we feel better,” said Covino of adults who, due to their lived experience, are often more adept at navigating turbulent times than those with less practice. While the negative effects associated with the pandemic are history for a large portion of society, this is not the case for young people. For teens especially, many of whom missed out on building valuable skills such as mastery, competence and judgment during this time period, there are many remaining gaps in their development.

The College Mental Health Initiative (CMHI) at William James came on the heels of increased demand for mental health services across the country, and reaching an all-time high in the Commonwealth. The CMHI responds to the need to deliver care using the resources available; namely, training educators in how to address student mental health and well-being by cultivating connection and belonging rather than relying upon an outdated clinical model. 

“In this country, 50% of the counties lack even one mental health professional. In Massachusetts, which is one of the best resourced states, half of the time people who want to find mental healthcare cannot find somebody with time to see them,” said Covino citing the tangible benefits of the CMHI: “It dramatically amplifies the number of people on campus who can be helpful to students’ well-being,” he said, in a nod to survey results that reveal 74% of faculty want to cultivate supportive relationships with students but fear doing so without training. As William James College has evolved, so, too, has the College’s approach to bringing resources to campus. 

“Our goal is to help faculty gain the education and skills they need to support students when they're in distress,” said Mēgan Kersting, director of young adult and college behavioral health initiatives, whose position was funded by grants from the Ruderman Family Foundation (RFF) and the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education. In this inaugural role, Kersting will work closely with colleagues like Nadja Lopez, executive director of the Center for Behavioral Health, Equity, and Leadership in Schools, on ways to effectively engage folks across campus in conversations that support student well-being.

 “The social-emotional competencies of adults are critical in terms of supporting student mental health,” said Lopez who was tapped by President Phil Sisson of Middlesex Community College—William James’ partner in this work—to lead a series of day-long trainings on their campus, essential work that sowed the seeds of the RFF grant program at William James.

“We focused on specific strategies that faculty could use to support the mental health and well-being of students on a daily basis,” said Lopez in a nod to building personal skills, regulating emotions, and engaging in difficult conversations—with the goal of creating a stronger community of support for students, one that extends beyond the counseling center—that often lie at the intersection of behavioral health with diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Covino and his colleagues acknowledge that many hands indeed make light(er) work when it comes to finding a path forward and improving mental health outcomes for William James College students. His initial vision and ongoing work with AICUM (Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts), which began with his tenure as Board Chair in 2021, culminated in a trio of summits, titled “Reimagining Behavioral Health in Higher Education,” that were supported by grant funding from the RFF in conjunction with WJC and AICUM. A pair of grants, from the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, have been earmarked for work in support of the CMHI: one will make faculty training on campus possible, and the other will fund a feasibility study on emergency psychiatric models for colleges in Massachusetts, a topic that emerged from the first summit’s keynote address.

On campus, the timing couldn’t be better. “We are striving for a preventive model,” said Kersting, underscoring the intentional design of the CMHI: To build a community of ongoing support for students—one that precludes handing those who are struggling off to the college counseling office where a dearth of clinicians and hours in a day has rendered the one-on-one treatment model unsustainable.

 “[The goal is] to break the silo between academics and mental health—and provide multiple points of entry for talking about the connection between the two—[because] you can’t have one without the other,” said Lopez, who agrees thinking proactively is the key when it comes to equipping various stakeholders in the community with the appropriate skills. “We know that the earlier we identify an issue and the earlier treatment is sought, the better the outcomes—and a universal prevention model is a way to widen the network,” she said, underscoring the shift in mindset essential to this work. 

“In order to have academic rigor and do well in their studies, students need to have emotional strength and be connected in a positive way with their learning environment,” said Lopez of a win-win woven into the very fabric of the CMHI: Strengthening students’ overall health so they can thrive academically.

Kersting, a clinical psychologist who came to William James following a decade spent in higher education counseling services, sees the collective strength and presence within the William James campus community as the prime environment in which to do this work: “People have been asking for this [model], and it's really heartening to see faculty and staff hungry for it.”