College Counseling Centers have seen, with greater frequency, students with profound mental health issues. In direct relation, Residential Life staff is increasingly experiencing more complex and difficult student related developmental and behavioral issues. While it is expected that Residential Life professional staff have an understanding for these areas, it is also clear that support from professionally trained Counseling staff is of critical importance. Counseling staff has the responsibility within the college community to consult, train and collaborate in managing students with psychological crises. Most often, these situations arise in the institution’s residence halls after hours which make Resident Life professionals front line staff. A close working relationship between the two departments, Resident Life and Counseling Services, enhances the safety for students and the community. Thus, careful and intentional collaboration between these particular members of the campus community provides the unique potential and, in fact, likelihood for successful student related outcomes, the ultimate goal.
On our campus, partnering of Resident Life and Counseling Services staff, in what became known as “Building Relationships”, grew out of a shared desire for better collaboration between departments in responding to after hour’s crisis situations. The start of Building Relationships also coincided with new staff members of the College who were still becoming acquainted with our campus community.
Although Counseling Services staff had a great deal of experience in managing psychological crises, the staff were inexperienced in doing so on a college campus, a unique setting that brings many challenges for crisis management. While the Building Relationships group was developed initially to help staff understand the College’s procedures with after hour’s crisis response, another benefit quickly emerged. That benefit was the development of closer working relationships with colleagues who are highly integrated with the student population.
In Building Relationships meetings, staff from both departments suggested scenarios pertaining to students of concern. The Building Relationships group then broke down each scenario into a step by step detailed-oriented process that included possible outcomes. The results produced our protocol and was documented “Responses to Psychological Situations”. This document outlined both department and individual roles within each possible scenario. To better illustrate these efforts, examples of those scenarios follows. The examples reflect how information is expected to flow between the various individuals/departments. The first two scenarios address variations on a missing persons report with the inclusion of a vague suicide note.
Response to Psychological Situations (examples)
Scenario 1: Missing person who left a vague suicide note:
Scenario # 2: Missing person with a vague suicide note who returns shortly afterwards:
The next example addresses a reckless student with a weapon that has a history of erratic behavior. The illustration reflects a circular pattern as the knowledge of such an event could become known by individuals at any stage and the understanding that each would need to become involved for appropriate resolution and follow-up.
Scenario #3: Reckless student with a weapon who has a history of erratic behavior:
The Building Relationships meetings found successful outcomes in many areas. The meetings gave a forum for debriefing on crisis situations, to determine what worked well and where our collaborative responses needed to improve. The meetings appear to have assisted staff with feeling a greater sense of confidence in responding to crises as well as enhancing their skill level in supporting students. The collaboration also offered the opportunity for dialog and clarity in our planning for responses to student crisis situations as well as an understanding for the role of each team member. It offered staff the chance to prepare for any situation they may face while discussing and planning in advance. Another success was that the meetings allowed staff members a deeper familiarity and understanding for the working style of individual staff members. Yet, perhaps the most significant outcome was the support students received during and after a crisis which came through the seamless collaboration of both departments. The Building Relationships group very quickly recognized all of these benefits and agreed to the value of consistent meetings throughout the academic year.
As professional staff becomes more effective in their collaboration, how can this process be expanded? The next logical step would be to include other invested parties, Resident Assistants in particular. On most college campuses, Resident Life staff and Counseling Center staff provide intensive trainings with Resident Assistants (RAs) as a part of the Pre-Service Fall Training experience. Since RAs tend to have good relationships with the students on their floors and may be the first one students turn to when in a crisis, this Pre-Service time provides a built-in opportunity to engage and chart ways to manage psychological crises. The modeling of a strong working relationship between the professional staff of Resident Life and Counseling Services offers a unified community and sense of support with “you are not in it alone.” In addition, as with professional staff, the thought is that it can only add to their skill set and enhance self-confidence. Lastly, as students, they too would benefit from the added support and lessen the burn out factor they might otherwise experience.
In conclusion, the collaboration of our Resident Life and Counseling departments has proven to be an important investment of our time and energy. Expanding upon this foundation, with the intention of remaining engaged in regular and open dialogue, allows us to not only keep current with the many difficult and often challenging issues our students face but also provides the opportunity to work in a proactive manner to offer assistance and support to students and each other. The Building Relationships group has given staff the forum to build skills, connect with colleagues, gain support and understanding, but most importantly has aided our campus in managing critical incidents with students. Our proactive efforts are producing positive results and have resulted in a marked decrease in after hour incidents.
Jeanne McGowan, Director of Counseling Services, Gwynedd-Mercy College
Rick LaRosa, Director of Resident Life, Gwynedd-Mercy College