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EMU's 'Building a Community of Caring' initiative aims to improve student mental health

Dr. Ronald Flowers
Eastern Michigan University
Dr. Ronald Flowers


Dr. Ronald Flowers

Eastern Michigan University Higher Education/Student Affairs

"Building a Community of Caring"


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And I'm David Fair. Glad to spend a Friday afternoon with you and help drive you into what I hope is a weekend of rest relaxation full of family, friends and fun. You know, weekends or just taking some time away from our workaday lives is a measure of self-care. It can be essential to the well-being of our mental health. College students today are well aware of the pressures of academics, paying bills, negotiating a social life, and dealing with the effects and impacts of social media. And more than ever, they are making those financial time and emotional investments without something previous generations felt secure about. And that's a four-year degree that gets you a job, career and financial stability. The evidence shows it's taking a toll. At Eastern Michigan University, a new task force is getting underway to develop and implement a comprehensive strategic mental health action plan. It's being called "Building a Community of Caring." Our guest today is Doctor Ron Flowers. Doctor Flowers is a professor in EMU's Department of Leadership and Counseling and serves as chair of the task force. And thank you so much for making your way over to WEMU today.

Dr. Ronald Flowers
Eastern Michigan University
Dr. Ronald Flowers

Dr. Ronald Flowers: Thank you for having me.

David Fair: Now, I fear I may have made it sound as though there are not already a variety of services to help students when it comes to their mental health. There certainly are at EMU. So, how is it determined that something different or additional was needed?

Dr. Ronald Flowers: Well, basically, the demand is high enough that we can't adequately provide services for every single student. So, students' mental health runs on a continuum from some mild stress: perhaps some mild depression. That may not require seeking professional services or a counselor, but it's how can we help support those students, so that they don't navigate down this continuum into a crisis or into a situation where they would need professional counseling--to see a therapist. And so, the idea of building a safety net under all of our students to create a community that cares and supports for them in all the different areas of their needs.

David Fair: Ultimately, the plan to be implemented is going to include a variety of partnerships. What are the goals for enhancing EMU's ability as an institution to better serve the individual mental health needs of the people that populate the campus community?

Dr. Ronald Flowers: Well, we've got a number of initiatives that we're beginning. One of the first things we started was "Building a Caring Classroom," which is determining what one little thing can each of us do as faculty in our classrooms to provide support for our students something that doesn't necessarily take away from delivery of the content of the course, but then again, provide some support and the understanding that it's a safe space. And if they need to reach out to a faculty member for support in some way that the faculty have the tools to be able to provide that kind of support.

David Fair: You've been in academia for a while now and certainly been on and around college campuses for a great deal of time. Just anecdotally speaking, have you noticed changes in the mental well-being of students throughout your career?

Dr. Ronald Flowers: Yeah, I think, first of all, I think the students of this generation are much more comfortable in discussing the stressors that they face on a daily basis, which is a positive.

David Fair: That's good.

Dr. Ronald Flowers: But, yeah, I teach Introduction to Higher Education. And one of the things that we talk about is innovations in higher education. And students are really interested to learn that. One of the innovations that I thought was awesome was that you could have your own telephone in your classroom that was wired. And so, the pace of that kind of change has just,snowballed to where we've talked about social media and the stressors that come from that and the pace of school and life and financial challenges. Am I going to have a job? Is this the career for me? Yes, I've seen those types of stressors increase, and students continuing to look for sources of assistance and support.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And we're talking with EMU professor Doctor Ron Flowers about a new task force he chairs. It's developing a strategic initiative to address mental health on campus. And it's called "Building a Community of Caring." So, you talk about there is a degree of more openness among students today about talking about issues and stressors. What about identifying those who are not openly talking in class? How do the professors and the lecturers and the staff members at Eastern Michigan University go about identifying those that may be at risk?

Dr. Ronald Flowers: Well, I think the first thing to do is to normalize the discussion of mental health and to make it something that's acceptable and welcomed in the classroom. And that doesn't take a lot of time. And to the level at which faculty member feel comfortable is to be vulnerable themselves about their experiences as undergraduates as they made their way through the academy. I think that's the first step is making and normalizing that. I think there are some behaviors that faculty can be aware of in terms of attendance changes, the turning in of assignments, those sort of things that may give you a hint that things aren't right--students showing up to class disheveled, not looking like they've gotten a lot of sleep. Those sort of things may be indicators, but we need to be careful, because there are a lot of students that show no indications and no signs. My son, which we lost to suicide in September of 2022, was an honor student, a merit scholar, an All-American athlete, musician, talented and bright. And you would not have suspected that he suffered from depression and anxiety. So, I think the most important thing is to just make students aware that this is a safe space. You can come talk to me. I know where the resources are, so that I can direct you if you do need assistance. And if you do identify a student who is in crisis or appears to be in crisis, take immediate steps. And I know faculty who have actually said, "I've taken a student, walked them after class down to CAPS, which is the mental health services, because I realize they were experiencing a significant, stressful situation."

David Fair: And, as you mentioned, sometimes it's the ones you least suspect of having some issues that have the most serious of issues. Typically, therapy only works if a person is a willing participant. It's difficult to force help on someone who is unwilling or not yet ready to help themselves. And there's a nuance to every individual. So, as the task force begins to build its strategic plan, how can the need for that kind of malleable approach be accommodated when it's going to be kind of written in black and white?

Dr. Ronald Flowers: Well, I think that one of the things is to identify all the different places on campus that we can engage with students and have this conversation. So, one of the things that we will do is, in the early phases, to really take an inventory of where we are providing services, how we can help students build resilience, and how we can build that into our courses and build that into activities and educational programs that we provide on campus. And, in addition to that, how can we help students engage. In a way, engagement is one of the things that we know we're finding is there's just an epidemic of loneliness, of people not connected and students not connected and feeling isolated.

David Fair: And that's partially a product of the social media that was designed to connect us.

Dr. Ronald Flowers: Right. And I've noticed you talked about noticing things. I've noticed over the years walking across campus and seeing students with earbuds in their iPhones out. And this isn't to criticize the behavior, but that sort of disconnect from the rest of the world or see a group of students sitting together, but they're all in their iPhones. And it's like, "How do we create community? How do we create spaces where students can engage? And also, how do we create safe spaces on campus where students can just go to and know it's going to be quiet?" The lighting isn't going to be the neon lights of a normal academic environment, and they can kind of decompress. So, all those are pieces of this idea of building a community that cares. And one of the things is we're just not talking to faculty, we're talking to staff. We have staff members and administrators, because those are also connection points to students. Oftentimes, the people in the admissions office, in the financial aid office or Student Life, they may be the first or they may be a contact that students feel comfortable with. So, how can we also bring those into this community?

David Fair: Doctor Flowers is our guest on 89 one WEMU. We're talking about building a community of caring at EMU. And, Doctor Flowers, what is the timeline for the task force to create the plan, so that it is ready for full implementation?

Dr. Ronald Flowers: So, the first six months will be engaged with both the Mental Health Network, which is over at the University of Michigan. They conduct one of the largest, mental health surveys of college students in the country. It's the Healthy Minds survey. We will be implementing that this spring--beginning the second week of April--for the entire student body. And then, we will also be holding focus groups in the fall. And there's a long list of documents and policies. We're partnering with the Jed Foundation, which is the largest, national nonprofit foundation in the country that focuses on the mental health of college students. And so, they're helping direct our strategic planning. And, like I said, the first six months will take us through in terms of this information gathering. We've just begun to get the paperwork and the baseline assessments, and it's a daunting amount of material and information. But it will give us a picture of it. They'll present us a report in the middle of next fall semester. We'll take the next two years to look at implementation and strategic planning and how we build that out. And, in the fourth year, then we'll go back and redo all of our assessments to see where we've had impacts, to determine what things we need to do to make sure what we've developed our sustainable and will be lasting for a good bit of time.

David Fair: I'd like to thank you for taking the time to explain what is happening with us today, and I look forward to following along and having more conversations about the implementation and its impact on student life here at EMU.

Dr. Ronald Flowers: Well, thank you for having me. I think it's a very important topic. That's one of the pieces of data points that really struck me. And, obviously, I have personal experience, but the second leading cause of death for students between the ages of 15 and 24 is suicide.

David Fair: Frightening.

Dr. Ronald Flowers: Yes.

David Fair: That is Doctor Ron Flowers. He is chair of the task force for "Building a Community of Caring" at Eastern Michigan University. He is also a professor in the EMU Department of Leadership in Counseling. They're developing a strategic plan and implementing a comprehensive program to better address the mental health needs of those on campus. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

Eastern Michigan University
Eastern Michigan University

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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