CCPA faculty, students develop solutions to improve mental health
Research-based approaches are making an impact on campus and in the community
As discussions of mental health become more open, the Binghamton University College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA) is taking a leading role in developing research-based approaches to improve the well-being of students and their families.
CCPA faculty and students are not only working within their own areas of expertise, but in collaboration with partners across the University and in the community. This interdisciplinary approach results in powerful and effective solutions to address various topics related to mental health.
While they only scratch the surface of the work being done, these unique examples highlight the real impact CCPA is having on classrooms, the community and students’ lives.
When preschool elementary school students feel angry or overwhelmed and need help working through their feelings, Tracy Lyman ’99, MSEd ’01, a certified elementary and special education teacher who is also a lecturer in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Educational Leadership (TLEL), encourages them to “think like a turtle.”
Take a cue from “Tucker Turtle,” Lyman tells them: “Tuck into your shell. Take three breaths to help calm down. Once your head is clear, you can think of a positive solution.”
In this case, “Tucker” is a green handheld puppet Lyman uses in her teaching. In her mental health and education course at Binghamton University, she uses methods like the scripted research-based story of “Tucker Turtle” and his namesake puppet to show teachers-in-training unique ways of helping preschool and elementary school students improve their well-being during difficult moments.
“There is a strong research base behind social-emotional learning and for schools that integrate this work, their students are more connected to school,” Lyman says. “For children, we are preparing them to be ready to learn and be more independent as they become problem solvers and have more successful interactions with peers and adults. This will support them as they move through school and then continue to build these skills into adulthood.”
Lyman also works with Binghamton University students in her class to show them how teachers can integrate well-being practices into their classroom activities and become better attuned to their students’ needs.
“If students are in a school environment where there’s bullying or students getting kicked out of classrooms, that’s going to impact everyone’s mental health and won’t make anyone feel safe or comfortable at school,” Lyman says.
She adds, “We need social workers when there are bigger issues, but teachers who want to help students can teach them to say, ’I’m having a hard time and I need a break.’ When that becomes part of the routine, the students feel less stressed. They feel more connected.”
Impacting the learning environment
One of the ways John Zilvinskis, associate professor of student affairs administration, builds connections with college students struggling with mental health challenges is by leaning on what he’s learned in his own research.
Zilvinskis, who studies issues affecting students with disabilities, including those tied to mental health, says students are more likely to succeed in settings when they feel welcome to discuss their problems openly.
“Often, students carry stigma related to their disabilities, which prevents disclosing to faculty and finding solutions,” Zilvinskis says. “I try to address this in the classes I teach by describing my own learning and mental health disabilities. For some, this creates a lane for students to talk with me about theirs.”
In a study published earlier this year, Zilvinskis and his research collaborators used survey data from more than 6,000 first-year college students with disabilities to explore aspects of academic advising behaviors that impacted grades and student engagement.
The findings demonstrated effective academic advising contributed positively to grades and engagement, but their effectiveness depends on the student’s individual situation.
Based on his research, Zilvinskis says, it’s important for educators at all academic levels to be trained in the best approaches for promoting well-being practices.
“Educators need to realize that disabilities aren’t always clinically diagnosed,” Zilvinskis says. “Instead, disability is slippery, especially for students with mental health conditions who may have disparate environments, events and capital influencing their success in managing them.”
Impacting the University
For Binghamton University’s Residential Life staff, a pilot program started in 2019 has expanded into a specialized, trained referral program that allows social work interns to provide case management services for students in distress.
It has allowed Master of Social Work (MSW) students like Jessica Laymon, MSW ’22 to learn while making a positive impact on the campus community.
“Mental health is no different than your physical health, in that they both affect your well-being,” she says.
Interns in the program each work with up to 25 Binghamton students at a time in figuring out the best ways to address personal struggles such as anxiety, depression or other hurdles tied to college life.
Laymon, who graduated from the MSW program in December 2022 and is a senior caseworker in Broome County’s Department of Social Services, quickly realized that helping college students navigate their problems isn’t the kind of difficult conversation she’d begin in an examination room.
“It’s about building a rapport with the students and getting them comfortable,” she says.
This individualized approach would often take the form of meeting students at a coffee shop or talking about hobbies and other interests first. Students feel more comfortable talking about their problems once they feel relaxed, she says.
Underway for a few years now, the program continues to yield promising results for both the MSW interns and students living on campus.
“Dealing with your mental health is just part of having a normal experience in life,” says Jessica Treadwell, MSW ’16, assistant director of student support in Residential Life and a licensed master social worker who supervises the MSW interns. “If you’re going through difficult times, you need somebody to help you navigate through that.”
Impacting the community
Beyond the campus community, researchers in the Department of Social Work have found other unique ways to assist families facing challenges accessing much-needed mental health support.
Aided by a SUNY Prepare Innovation Grant, Associate Professor of Social Work Youjung Lee, doctoral student and incoming social work faculty member Kelley Cook and CCPA Dean Laura Bronstein collaborated in 2020 to develop a telemental health service. Its goal was to provide virtual mental health services for local children and families, primarily in rural areas with little access to services.
The program partnered with Binghamton University Community Schools to engage with local families, resulting in around 30 of them being referred through the service.
Before the pandemic, Lee says, telemental health services were viewed as secondary or optional. But given the success of this model, she says social work students should be trained in it just as they are trained for in-person practice.
One of the most effective approaches to helping families through the telemental health service was to simplify strategies for addressing seemingly complex problems, Cook says.
For example, if parents were struggling with their child having outbursts because of anxiety and difficulty getting to school, but that same child was able to stay calm and organized when going to bed by a specific time the night before — social workers like Cook would help those parents adapt the practices that proved successful at bedtime into their morning routines.
“I think that creates a space for the individual or family to take ownership, because then it’s from them. We’re implementing solution-focused practices to help clients identify past successes
and exceptions to problems,” Cook says. “We aim to create a context for change and bolster solutions, so a client can find workable solutions to problems.”