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Makenna Theissen, Staff

The Kentucky Kernel’s focus on mental wellness among UK students is not only commendable.

It is vital.

So, too, is the admonition throughout the Kernel’s recent reporting, captured in two statements:

“We must take care of one another … We have to do better.”

That means addressing issues surrounding mental health, but also the overall wellness and well-being of our students.

Students come to our campus with determination and passion. But, as we all know, many students come with a broad range of deep concerns and complex challenges – from anxiety and depression, to financial and food insecurity.

Our goal is to create a community of belonging, as President Eli Capilouto often says. That means ensuring a sense of well-being for everyone who calls this place home.

To that end, UK has formulated an action plan for student success around four pillars:

· Belonging and engagement

· Student health and wellness

· Academic success

· Financial stability

The pillars have provided the university an important framework to focus our efforts. But we also know these issues must be addressed holistically – not as one discrete issue or as one pillar, but across the range of challenges that students confront.

One harrowing example is suicide, which is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24. Suicide is not always a sign of mental illness. It could be spurred by a range of issues, some sudden in nature, others longstanding.

This is why, several years ago, UK created what we call the Community of Concern (CoC), a centralized point of contact for people with concerns about the welfare of others. The goal is that UK community members are connected to the support and resources needed to maintain a safe, healthy and successful relationship with UK.

The CoC Team, which meets weekly, includes mental health clinicians, safety officials, legal experts, university administrators and the president’s office, among others. The team’s work is vitally important because, as the Kernel’s reporting supports, the challenges confronting students are growing. The continued and increased commitment in the work of the CoC is based on UK’s understanding that our response must be equally robust and coordinated to stay on top of these issues.

In the last 20 years, in fact, we’ve more than doubled the number of licensed psychologists and licensed clinical social workers at UKCC, including several in the last three years as part of a reorganization of student support efforts. We’ve also focused our approach to mental health through outreach to reduce stigma and by addressing students’ most acute needs.

For example, at UKCC, if a student presents as being at risk or contemplating suicide, an evaluation is conducted, and the person is seen almost immediately.

For others, who may be suffering from anxiety or related issues, an appointment is scheduled. Clinical assessments are critical because they inform the type of support prescribed. Again, if a student is at risk of harm, he/she is seen that day. For some students, however, a group counseling session may better serve their needs. Still others find the best support through mindfulness classes or help with coping skills.

Student needs don’t fit a one-size-fits-all model. Our approach to counseling shouldn’t either.

We have made the same sorts of investments in academic success, adding dozens of advisors and tools that assess how students are faring academically. Intervening early when a student is at risk academically is, more often than not, the best approach.

The same is true of financial security. We know that the single greatest impediment to academic success is unmet financial need. Through the UK LEADS program, we’ve targeted millions of dollars toward one-time grants and renewable scholarships based on financial need.

Through our partnership with Aramark, UK provided more than 2,000 free meals last year. A student-run food pantry serves students as well. And, working with students, we are currently planning for a virtual student needs center, which will connect students – wherever they are and whatever their needs – with resources.

We have and will continue to invest heavily and strategically in each of these respective areas.

These efforts are paying off. It’s why UK’s graduation rate has improved nearly 5 percentage points in the last four years.

But gaps and issues remain. There is more to do.

Too many students don’t know about available resources. Too often, faculty and staff don’t have the information or the tools they need to guide students to these resources. We recognize that.

We are committed to tackling these issues – thoughtfully, strategically and with students as partners.

The bottom line is this: needing help, or seeking assistance, is not weakness. It’s a recognition that we are a compassionate community.

Wellness … community … belonging – these are not the responsibilities of any one person, administrator, faculty or staff member. Reaching out to friends when we see them in distress is how we show we care. It’s how we show people they’re not alone, even when they feel that way. Caring also means talking about these issues – openly, transparently and empathetically.

There’s a balance that must be addressed, though, and another tough question: How do we have this conversation without further stigmatizing those who suffer and without compromising privacy?

The fact that so many people, who care deeply, have many different ideas underscores how difficult that balance is— and how important it is to keep trying.

We will -- because we share a responsibility as members of this community.

It is, as the Kernel said, to care for one another.

Mary Bolin is director of the UK Counseling Center.

Nick Kehrwald is UK’s dean of students.

Andrew Smith is UK’s assistant provost for health and wellness.

Therese Smith is director of UK’s Community of Concern.