As Florida State University rolls out a massive new campaign designed to help students weather stress and cope with childhood traumas, Jim Clark, the dean of the College of Social Work, fears that the public might buy in to a damaging but common stereotype of college students: that they are fragile “snowflakes” in need of coddling.
Clark believes that they are resilient -- a term that has been co-opted into a psychological buzzword. But it strongly applies to Florida State’s new program, a unique effort to consolidate mental health resources for students and teach them about “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs, early traumas such as domestic abuse or a family suicide that have lingering and often deep effects into adulthood.
Since ACEs are often associated with depression, physical health problems and substance abuse later in life, they are particularly important for college students -- who are already adjusting to a new environment -- to learn about. For example, a contingent of more than 100 alumni from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, site of the Feb. 14 Parkland, Fla., shooting, will matriculate at Florida State this fall. This is a group that has already grappled with significant community violence, Clark said.
As if addressing these students, Clark said, “We want you to capture those life strengths you brought, through generosity of your parents and your social networks. Even if you face major adversity, you have all of these things that are untapped, and we want to help you release them and put language around them.”
The Student Resilience Project has been in the works for about a year.
After the hazing-related death in November of Andrew Coffey, a 20-year-old fraternity pledge, Clark said he tried to find a program the university could adopt that would help the entire study body, not just Greek organizations, learn about high-risk behaviors and alcohol and substance abuse. Shortly after Coffey’s death, President John E. Thrasher shut down all fraternity and sorority activities, banned alcohol among student groups, and later instituted stringent new rules on Greek organizations.
As he researched new approaches, Clark said, he found that peer-reviewed literature and methods in this area were sparse. He realized, too, that relying on the counseling center, which tends to be overburdened as students report mental health problems more frequently, would not work.
Florida State, however, is part of The Resilience Consortium, a Harvard University-based group of faculty and administrators who are interested in promoting resilience on campuses. Its members have developed tactics, projects and events around the topic.
With the backing of Florida State’s provost, Clark worked with Karen Oehme, director of Florida State’s Institute for Family Violence Studies, to create an online seminar of sorts that all incoming first-year students, about 6,000, will be required to participate in. Students must watch a number of videos on ACEs and listen to audio, in TED talk-style, about methods of dealing with pain, suffering and everyday stress. This portion of the project is due to be released late September, close to when students will be reaching their first tests or big projects, Clark said.
Before that, students will be given a “summer dose,” in which they will watch video interviews with students who discuss what problems they had when they first arrived at Florida State. One woman discusses how she got lost on her bus route and ended up missing class. Another student talks about his separation from his long-term high school boyfriend, which sent him into a depression, but he also talks about how he recovered. The segments include “action plans” for each typical problem, such as contact for mental health services, if needed, or how to join campus clubs.
Clark described the efforts as a “full-court press,” and indeed, those students who fail to complete the program will have a “soft hold” placed on their spring registration, alerting them that they did not participate. Opting out is possible if students are too stressed to complete it, Clark said.
“We’re not out to punish,” he said.
Clark said he did not want to give the impression that most students are running around recovering from significant trauma -- though according to one study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, two-thirds of people interviewed reported they encountered at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three ACEs. But students who are entering college need help settling in, too, Oehme said, and the program offers basics tips for relaxing, such as journaling or mediation.
The project will cost more than $300,000, including the design of a website and multimedia, and roughly $50,000 more in advertising costs. The modules were designed with feedback from students under 25 who said they preferred slick animations to learn about ACEs, compared to real-life scenes, because animation felt more comfortable for them to watch to learn about serious topics, Clark said.
Acknowledging that young people often have trouble paying attention, Oehme said university officials worked to make the program as appealing as possible, which included making it available on mobile devices as well.
With the introduction of the project will come a big advertising push, with handbills distributed and advertisements placed around the grounds and on university buses that circulate campus.
“This is integrated and complex,” Oehme said. “There are people who have done parts of this, bits and pieces, but in our view haven’t connected trauma and resilience enough. That’s been the weakness.”