As part of its effort to evaluate Columbia’s mental health resources and policies, a mental health steering group led by Columbia College Dean James Valentini will partner with the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that will aim to provide an external, expert perspective on Columbia’s practices.
With at least four confirmed student suicides over the course of this academic year, Bollinger’s initiative will aim to serve as an important step in understanding and addressing the pressing mental health concerns on campus.
The Jed Foundation is closely intertwined with Columbia. Both CEO John MacPhee, CC ‘89, and founder Phillip Satow, CC ‘63, are Columbia alumni. Satow is also an emeritus member of Columbia College’s board of visitors, a group of alumni donors who advise Valentini and Bollinger, while the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, Richard Eichler, serves on the Jed Foundation’s board of expert advisors.
In 2013, the foundation awarded Columbia a “Seal of Approval” for its mental health resources. But in the years since, student complaints about mental health resources including CPS have persisted.
The foundation will evaluate Columbia’s resources as a part of the JED Campus Program. Through this initiative, the Foundation collaborates with schools to help them assess their resources and to recommend program and policy changes that address the school’s needs, a task that takes about three to four months.
The process begins with having the steering group complete an assessment comprised of 140 items that analyze current practices, including how the school develops life skills, promotes connectedness, prevents isolation, identifies at-risk students, advocates help-seeking behavior, and restricts access to means of self-infliction, according to Jed Chief Medical Officer Dr. Victor Schwartz.
The extent to which the student body at large will be able to provide feedback to the steering group remains unclear, but the foundation stresses the importance of representation across disciplines.
“The takeaway message is that we want input from the students as well,” MacPhee said. “We don’t just take the word of the administration.”
Despite the foundation’s connections to Columbia, Satow said that he did not view the relationship as a conflict of interest.
“As a friend of mine said, it's actually a ‘confluence’ of interest,” Satow said. “All the experience that I’ve had at the Jed Foundation can only be helpful, given the fact that I’m on the board of visitors. It gives me the opportunity to interact with students, deans, active alumni, and faculty and staff members who are important leaders. As a very interested alum, Columbia is very special place to me.”
Co-chair of the University Senate Student Affairs Committee and Mental Health Task Force member Sean Ryan, CC ’17, agreed that collaboration with Columbia students is imperative to ensuring accurate representation.
“I’m looking forward to figuring out how we can get as many students as possible involved in this process, and that goes beyond just the students who will be sitting on the steering group,” Ryan said. “As SAC identified in our proposal to the community, we need to be doing more work to reach out to students of marginalized backgrounds—disabilities, veterans, LGBTQ, low income—that is where data shows our community is most vulnerable.”
Taking into account the responses on the questionnaire, and various student data, the foundation examines the school’s efforts in comparison to their framework of best practices and returns an action plan—a list of recommendations for how the school can best improve.
Despite the initial four-month time frame, the JED Campus Program will extend over the course of four years, during which foundation experts will continue to monitor the progress of past improvements and to aid in the implementation of new changes.
“We have this well-developed model on what a campus community should be doing to support the mental health of its students,” MacPhee said. “It involves all aspects of the community, from students, to faculty, to academic advisors, to campus security, and to facilities. The premise is that mental health belongs to the whole community. It’s not just about the counseling services.”