A Bridge to Better Mental Health
Wednesday, March 18, 2020
BY BRIDGET BURNHAM
In 2018, the Carlson School became one of the first business schools in the country to add an in-house mental health resource for students. While this isn’t the only or the largest mental health initiative the University has taken on, it represents a new approach to providing students more integrated support during a critical time in their lives.
Raj Singh, associate dean of the undergraduate program at the Carlson School, worked closely with the Carlson Family Supporting Organization to help secure funding to bring a dedicated counselor to the undergraduate campus. He says it wasn’t difficult to get backing.
“Everyone there was supportive,” Singh says. “They almost all knew someone in their personal lives who had struggled with mental health. People were looking for a way to help and eager to take this step forward.”
Bridging a Gap
The conversations that led to that boardroom discussion—and ultimately the funding that led to hiring a counselor—started a few years before. In 2014, a group of students raised the issue of improving mental health services on campus. One of those students was Madison Schwartz, ’19 BSB, who was named the 2019 winner of the Tomato Can Loving Cup Award for her work on inclusion and mental health awareness during her time at the Carlson School.
“When I started freshman year, Boynton had a really long wait line,” says Schwartz. “If you needed to see someone, whether it was for a flu shot or a mental health appointment, the wait could be up to a month.”
Another concern voiced by students and faculty was the distance students had to travel to access mental health services. Although only about a mile away, crossing the Washington Avenue bridge to the East Bank could be a barrier or a trigger for students, especially during cold weather.
Schwartz says, “If I recommended people to Boynton, I would usually walk over with them. It was such a trek, and any extra barriers can limit you from deciding to see someone.”
Schools, especially business schools, can be really competitive. There’s pressure to conform and not admit that things aren’t going really well. There is still a stigma around seeing counselors.
Schwartz took up these issues when she served on the Minnesota Student Association and participated in the Carlson School’s “How Are You?” campaign. She also had conversations with students about mental health obstacles as part of Carlson’s annual “One in Three” event, so named because one in three students is affected by a mental health disorder.
“Schools, especially business schools, can be really competitive,” Schwartz adds. “There’s pressure to conform and not admit that things aren’t going really well. There is still a stigma around seeing counselors.”
John and Diane Houle, whose daughter, Jennifer Houle, a Carlson School student, died by suicide in 2015, are in support of anything that broadens access and visibility of resources to students.
John Houle reminds people about the need to start having conversations that normalize mental illness, just like any other illness that people can talk about and support each other through.
“There is no one face of mental illness,” John says. “Jennifer was beautiful and driven, a successful student who had a job lined up a year in advance. You wouldn’t have thought she was struggling with this disease.”
The Houles recently met with University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel and expressed their support of the University’s leadership in pursuing innovative mental health resources for students.
An Integrated Approach
The Carlson School’s new counseling position, which reports to the overarching University’s Student Counseling Services, is uniquely structured to respond to these challenges. The dedicated role is located in the same office as the Carlson School’s academic advisors and works closely with Singh.
In addition to the convenience for students, this new resource brings other benefits for staff and the program. Carlson School Academic Advisor Lindsay Gundecha, who also serves as a trained mental health advocate on campus, sees the value of having a counselor within the Carlson School.
“Having someone who our team can introduce students to as a resource to help them navigate personal and academic challenges is a game-changer,” Gundecha says.
A Friendly Face
Students, faculty, and staff had a say in the selection process for the new role. They chose Dr. Donna Kulakowski, PhD, LP, because she embodied the attributes each group felt the position required.
Singh says, “Donna not only provides counseling, but also creates programming for students about resilience, and is a valuable resource to faculty and staff as they manage students going through the program.”
Schwartz, who was part of the hiring committee, says, “We were looking for someone who could work with a lot of different students. Donna is one of the sweetest and most approachable people. She is passionate about the school and our student leaders and believes in business as a force for good.”
Kulakowski believes that her role gives her a unique perspective that allows her to serve students better.
“Working so closely with advisors means people are here to give me answers,” Kulakowski says. “I get to know a lot more about the programs my clients are studying. I know what the atmosphere is, and what the working environment is like. I understand what they’re saying when they say ‘I-Core’ or a ‘case competition.’ I know the pressure they’re under.”
What Custom Care Looks Like
The slight shift in the structure of mental health services at the Carlson School has altered faculty conversations and fostered more collaboration, creating a network of support for students.
For one, Singh reminds faculty and staff to use their counseling resources to guide them in building classrooms and relationships that promote mental health. Gundecha and other advisors share Kulakowski’s picture with new students when they meet with them for the first time so they are on a “first-face basis” with her, hopefully making them more comfortable reaching out to her directly. Kulakowski is zeroing in on some of the most common areas of concern for Carlson School students, such as exams, grading, and study abroad, so she can empower them to plan and build skills to problem-solve through them.
I remind them of their skills to solve problems and how they've used those skills in the past. My goal is to reframe and help them be more comfortable.
Kulakowski has also used her experience with students to advise on changes to approaches or program requirements that could improve the overall environment for mental health. She’s initiated discussions on grading scales and deadlines that were sources of stress and offered suggestions for how the program could adjust to improve.
A simple example, says Singh, is some professors who were giving homework with deadlines of 10:00 p.m. or midnight. Kulakowski and others on campus noticed that students typically expand work to fit the allotted time, and suggested that earlier deadlines might keep students from regularly working into the late hours of the evening.
“Learning that those deadlines were out there and causing students stress, we could easily implement earlier deadlines,” Singh says.
Kulakowski has also focused on supporting students through the study abroad requirement.
“It is an area of stress for some students,” Kulakowski says. “[Leaving and] living with a host family is intimidating.”
She’s prepared to walk students through their thoughts and feelings about the impending experience.
“We make a plan that addresses the unique concerns they have and figure out what we can do ahead of time,” she says. “I remind them of their skills to solve problems and how they’ve used those skills in the past. My goal is to reframe and help them be more comfortable.”
Kulakowski spends time equipping students with skills to deal with anxiety, such as breathing and mindfulness practices, which they can use in many areas of their life on campus and beyond.
Fuel for Future Leaders
Adding a counseling role is part of a growing focus on mental health for Carlson School students.
“We spend a lot of time coaching students academically. Mental health is also part of student development,” Singh says. “We need to build in more proactive systems to normalize mental health conversations and treat mental illness just like any other disease.”
The Houles, who have continued to share Jennifer’s story to help other families and have established a scholarship in her honor, say they are supportive of the University’s efforts.
“We think Carlson is at the forefront in terms of mental health for business schools. Carlson, and the University of Minnesota in general, are doing all the right things. We’re here to support them along the way in any way that we can,” John Houle says.
An investment in the mental health of students can also elevate their growth as leaders.
Schwartz believes deeper discussions around mental and emotional health lead to greater influence. “The people who motivated me and inspired me most were the people who were open and authentic. It can be easier to stay closed off and only talk about your resumé, but being vulnerable and showing up completely is where you make an impact.”
Building Cohesive Mental Health Care on Campuses
Eric Muckey, a student in the dual MBA, MPP program with the Carlson School and the Humphrey School, will leave the program on a mission to put an end to suicide in young adults. As part of the Sands Family Social Venturing Fellowship, he’s spent the past two years leading a campus mental health nonprofit in South Dakota called Lost&Found.
Muckey commends school mental-health initiatives like the one launched at the Carlson School, but he sees a growing need for more coordination and collaboration on campuses.
“Administration can’t be the only driver of mental health,” he says. “In order to build capacity, there has to be a cohesive connector, some form of method and machinery behind what mental health looks like on campus.”
Lost&Found brings the training, advocacy, and research services to help campuses build a community that supports their specific student population. The organization’s programs help college campuses identify consistent student mental health data, discover insights on student needs, and combine it with student-led outreach to fundamentally change campus policies, programs, and staffing for mental health.
“Often, what mental health looks like on campus is giving students the ability to know what they need,” says Muckey. “Drawing out those needs and giving students the skills and resources to get help creates a safe environment for everybody.”
Lost&Found’s impact and reach are growing. Since Muckey’s involvement, the program has expanded from two to five schools in South Dakota, and the Lost&Found team has grown to four part-time staff, 10 volunteers who directly serve the nonprofit, and more than 75 volunteers leading Lost&Found programming on campuses. The organization also recently received a funding commitment from T. Denny Sanford that will match Lost&Found’s Campaign for Campus Mental Health, which will raise $100,000 each year for the next three years.
Muckey is preparing to transition from his part-time role to serving full-time as Lost&Found’s CEO starting this summer. In addition to continuing to establish the organization’s research footprint, strengthen student programs, and deepen partnerships, Muckey also plans to use his network to expand Lost&Found within South Dakota and into Minnesota.
Muckey says preliminary discussions between the Carlson School and Lost&Found are particularly exciting.
“I am proud of where the Carlson School is heading and of the commitment across the University of Minnesota to mental health,” he says. “The support for Lost&Found from the Carlson School, The Sands Fellowship, the Holmes Center, and faculty and classmates has been incredible. I welcome the opportunity to take my own Carlson School experience and give back to the school in a meaningful way.”
This article appeared in the Spring 2020 alumni magazine
This issue of our alumni magazine focuses on our world, how we take part in it, and how we, as a community, are making it a better place.