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Two Widener students create a tool to help their peers find mental-health resources

Philadelphia Inquirer - 2/13/2020

Feb. 14--As colleges grapple with rising youth suicide rates and a growing demand for mental-health resources, two Widener University students decided to tackle the issue themselves by creating a tool for the school's student portal, called myWidener, that allows their peers to ask for help more easily.

Michaela Kolenkiewicz, 22, and Christiana Dunn, 21, said the idea for the tool -- which pulls up a list of resources such as the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) and information on the university's Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) when users type the word "breathe" into the search bar -- developed from a mutual interest in mental health.

Making information about counseling centers easy for students to find is a priority at other universities in the area, as well. Many colleges do that through the student portal because students are already used to accessing the site to check their email, submit assignments, see their grades, and add money to their meal cards.

Villanova University's portal, MyNova, directs users who search "depression" to a page with phone numbers for the school's counseling center and health services. Bryn Mawr College also allows students to access a list of resources from their student portal, called BIONIC, and Haverford College students can schedule counseling appointments online. Rowan University uses a separate system for scheduling appointments and accessing health records through its wellness center, which students can access online through the self-service banner on the school's website.

Widener's Kolenkiewicz, a senior majoring in psychology, said that, initially, she just wanted to investigate what her university was doing for its students regarding mental health.

"I was looking at suicide on college campuses, and I read so many articles on how these schools failed their students," she said. "And when I went to my.widener.edu and typed in words like 'depression' and 'suicide' and 'mental health,' nothing came up. I thought that was crazy."

Since 2013, Widener has lost two students to suicide, and mental health continues to be a priority for colleges in the Philadelphia area, following three students who died by suicide at Rowan University last fall. In fact, Widener has had a group called Active Minds to spread mental health awareness since 2015, but it isn't linked to my.widener.edu.

Kolenkiewicz said her research made her wonder whether Widener students knew where the counseling center was located and the support lines they could reach out to by phone or text if they were struggling.

At the time, she was working with Angela Corbo, an associate professor in communication studies. Corbo, who used to work in student affairs, was immediately interested in Kolenkiewicz's idea of bringing more awareness to what mental-health resources were offered on campus.

"I felt that by creating a positive promotion on-campus that talked about mental health, like the whole idea of, 'It's OK not to be OK,' that would create a different tone on campus," Corbo said. "People wouldn't feel the need to isolate themselves."

Corbo introduced Kolenkiewicz to Dunn, who wanted to examine how people talked about mental health on college campuses, and the pair began working together. Eventually, the project expanded to include Widener's information technology services department and CAPS.

"The main struggle was thinking about what to put on the page," said Dunn, a junior studying communication studies. "We made a long list of resources and we got it approved when we first started, and then we met with the university psychologist and the provost to make it more reliable."

Next, Kolenkiewicz and Dunn had to decide on a search word to link the list to. They struggled to think of one at first, but then an incident they witnessed during homecoming weekend led to their decision to choose "breathe."

"Christiana actually watched a guy walk outside, grab a piece of wire, and start choking himself," Kolenkiewicz said. "She called me right away, we relaxed him together, and the situation was handled. Afterward, we kept saying to each other, 'Breathe, it's going to be OK.' And we knew it had to be the word because when you say it out loud, it's like you're subconsciously telling yourself to breathe and relax."

After the tool was finished, Dunn and Kolenkiewicz led an awareness campaign to make sure other students knew about it. They put up posters around campus and held events to promote healthy stress management.

The pair said that feedback has been mostly positive since launching.

"Michaela and I were known as the 'breathe' girls," Dunn said. "People questioned us about what it was. They also asked why we were doing this, and I kept telling them that it was to help people who don't feel like they have somebody. In the situation that somebody's thinking about doing something harmful, I want them to know that somebody out there created this because they care."

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(c)2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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