Neolth is bringing together academic, industry, and clinical experts from across the country to talk about youth mental health. In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, this series will feature these experts and open up the discussion of preventative mental health.
Dr. Bob Alston (he/him/el) is an educational leader supporting communities by strategically centering individual care and elevating human-focused service. Over his 12 years of experience supporting strategic alignment for learning & development in university communities, Bob has researched the discourse created by policies we write and how organizational systems can affect the people we seek to serve. Bob continues to seek pathways to integrate trauma-aware interactions into community expectations & discourse, inform & inspire organizations to improve support for the people they employ and assure the people with whom he works that they (and their experiences) matter. Bob serves as the Assistant Dean of Students at Northern Kentucky University. He works to provide collaborative, learner-focused care and education for people experiencing disruptive moments along their journey to graduation.
Neolth: Can you share a bit about your background and expertise in mental health?
Dr. Alston: I’m thankful to have been able to support student well-being and mental health in higher education settings for around the past 12 years at several universities and in varied roles. Currently, I connect with colleagues and lead our university’s collaborative care initiatives for behavioral well-being inside & outside the classroom. While my expertise isn’t specific to mental health, I feel that our efforts to build a community that values our students’ experiences while connecting them to campus & regional resources reflect my leadership goals. Our communities should clearly center on empathy and can be built (or re-constructed) to respect the realities of our students’ lives.
Neolth: In the past year, we’ve heard a lot about the pandemic’s effects on student anxiety and depression. What do you think will be the long-lasting effects of the pandemic on students?
Dr. Alston: I would offer that, in addition to impacts from the grief & loss students may have experienced, I think there could be specific concerns around student success in systems not yet ready to support them. Students are people, and people have experienced disruption and (arguably) some form of traumatic experience since March 2020. With varying degrees of impact, students have been in some form of flux for over 2 years. This uncertainty can add stressors to what folx already experience when they move into a new community (like a college or university) and could layer on top of this cognitive weight folx already carry.
Whether such experience(s) are connected to the virus or not, students have been persisting within systems that have adapted, with varying degrees of success, to revised expectations. Students expect flexibility because they have seen us flex. Students expect care because they've seen us care. Students expect us to listen and act because they have seen us open up lines of communication. To this end, the schools and colleges that keep revising these systems to meet these expectations will best serve these students. Often, schools get fixated on students adapting to our systems. If schools don’t respond to the circumstances of students and provide scalable support along the way, we won’t be successful in engaging them in the learning we say we desire.
Neolth: How might preventative mental health initiatives play a role in mitigating these long-lasting effects?
Dr. Alston: Prevention is absolutely a part of the levels of support schools can, and should, provide. Normalizing help-seeking behavior, ensuring help is accessible and available, and supportive campus climates (both in and outside of the classroom) are all a part of a preventive lens that can help mitigate these impacts.
Neolth: Do you think preventative programs should be connected with clinical and crisis care services so that care escalation can happen when needed? What role, if any, would technology play?
Dr. Alston: The connection between educational programs and clinical and crisis services should definitely exist. In thinking of programs or topics that may create a specific impact on a person, our team will work together to ensure that a clinical staff member is available for individual processing. Similarly, when a community impact occurs, we work to ensure appropriate pathways for connection to services. I know there are ways in which technology can support and assist these connections in ways that comply with relevant laws and policies, while also activating responses that meet a person’s specific need in that moment.
Neolth: How can schools be involved in supporting student mental health via preventative programs?
Dr. Alston: I think the accessibility pieces I identified are good to expand on here. Varied points of access for prevention and educational conversation that align with how students connect to the school, college, or university are imperative (e.g. physical for in-person students, online for distance learning students, etc.). Additionally, the conversations may also have varied types of facilitators, so students can speak with a staff member, faculty member, or a peer, based on their comfort level. Lastly, I believe that these work best when built in a comprehensive and community-based approach, so staffed offices are not the only places where students can access supportive interactions or resources.
Neolth: What place do you see for digital mental health programs in the schools?
Dr. Alston: Digital spaces can extend the community of care a school creates to continue whoever their student is physically located, so I feel that they can be a compliment to this community-centered approach. In fact, pragmas that center community support could be ideally engaging in a digital space, so a student’s connections and supports are not tied to a physical location, which could add to a student’s sense of belonging and that they are welcome in that educational space.
Neolth: Anything else you’d like to add?
Dr. Alston: I’m grateful for the (more expert than me) folx finding new and supportive pathways for students to feel connected in what can be an isolating time. As colleges, universities, and schools continue to navigate the systems in which we exist, I believe staff, faculty, and teachers can continue to seek pathways to integrate trauma-aware interactions into community expectations & discourse.
We should also inform & inspire our organizations to improve support for the students they serve and let students know that we care about them when they experience disruptive moments along their academic journey. Finally, we should always assure the people with whom we work that they (and their experiences) matter.