A change in how Boise State addresses mental health is in the air, and giving and other funding sources are contributing to it. In July of 2021, the office of the Dean of Students received a three-year, $304,000 grant from the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act to design, build and implement a comprehensive suicide prevention program.
Michelle Tassinari, the outreach and prevention case manager whose job is funded by the grant, is working on a multi-pronged approach to identify and respond to students, faculty and staff in distress before they reach a critical stage. Her plan: Training key members of the campus community to become mental health liaisons. Starting in high-stress departments, they will be ideal to recognize sudden changes in mood or behavior and intervene appropriately, whether it’s asking how someone is feeling or directing that person to more particular mental health services.
“The ideal outcome of the program would be that the faculty member notices something’s wrong with the student in the classroom,” Tassinari said. “They might go to this liaison in the department, and the liaison would help the student navigate things before they get too overwhelming.”
Ultimately, Tassinari added, the goal is to raise awareness around mental health issues, and raise the profile of an on- and off-campus mental health infrastructure. Cultivating a baseline understanding and vocabulary around those issues will protect the quality of the college experience and lead to more students being satisfied and successful.
Tassinari’s plan is in many ways just a widening of the net for detecting people at risk. The mental health competencies she describes have long been staples of the university’s resident life program, which trains resident assistants (RAs) and directors to be knowledgeable about the signs and symptoms of mental illness, and to have solid judgement about when they should help students directly and when to refer a student to services.
One of those resident assistants is Christy Amstutz, a senior who lives in University Square. The training she received, she said, was rigorous. Many students, she said, feel overwhelmed by everyday stressors like time management, academics and their social lives. She feels comfortable talking with residents about those things, and is confident in her ability to divert more serious conversations to counseling services, the Gender Equity Center or the Office of the Dean of Students.
The ethic behind RA training is to make sure every student feels at ease in the university environment, allowing them to pursue their academics without undue stress or fatigue. For Amstutz, that means building trust with the people who live in her area of responsibility and being patient as they find solutions to their problems that work for them. It’s about having a watchful eye and a light touch. In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, one of her residents faced persistent anxiety over schoolwork. After a period of trial and error, the student and their advisor decided the best course of action would be for the student to take all of their classes online.
“The more [students] feel comfortable talking with you, the closer you can get to the root of the problem. Most of the time, it’s a hybrid thing: You’re not getting at the issue initially,” she said. “Things are so much easier when you have that mutual respect and trust. If I can do my best to have a conversation with my residents before writing them into a report, that’s where that trust and respect come from.”