Supporting mental health and wellness on Donnelly campus

Richie Contartesi, a former Ole Miss football player, visited Donnelly College to discuss his history of overcoming mental illness.

Richie told students his story of battling depression and suicidal thoughts as well as the struggles he faced as a child living in poverty. Richie also described how he overcame these challenges to achieve his dream of playing college football at “Ole Miss” despite being 5’7” and 155 lbs.


Juggling multiple jobs and family responsibilities, struggling with housing or food insecurity, worrying that you or your family members might be deported and dealing with trauma, grief and loss—all of these are everyday realities for Donnelly College students. Imagine facing stressors like these while trying to navigate all the other “firsts” of college. Then imagine doing so without adequate financial resources or family support.

As a small, faith-based college in the urban core of Kansas City, Kansas, Donnelly College serves a unique student population:

  • 84 percent of our students are racial or ethnic minorities
  • 81 percent are the first in their families to go to college
  • 78 percent need at least one developmental course in reading, writing, or mathematics
  • 36 percent were born outside the U.S.

Financial resources are also scarce for our students—with average household incomes of just $27,000 a year, Donnelly students face both a lack of resources to pay for college and pressure to enter the workforce to supplement family income. When all of these challenges are combined with the academic and social challenges of going to college, it’s not surprising that Donnelly students would experience some mental health concerns.

Back in 2010, HCF funding helped Donnelly hire a licensed professional counselor and establish our Counseling Center. Awareness of the urgency of mental health needs on college campuses was already growing by this time. With the passage of the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act in 2004, for example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) had begun funding campus suicide prevention programs.

In 2013, Donnelly received a three-year SAMHSA grant that allowed us to train key gatekeepers in the Question, Persuade, Refer® suicide prevention program. This grant also enabled us to implement general wellness programming and to expand the LPC position to full-time.

Although these efforts helped raise awareness of mental health issues on our campus, Donnelly’s leadership also recognized the need for additional services. Students were visiting the Counseling Center in greater numbers and presenting with a range of mental health issues. At the same time, faculty and staff members were turning to the Counseling Center for resources and guidance on how to effectively help the students coming to them for support.

Thankfully, over the past two years, renewed funding from HCF has enabled Donnelly to offer free, individual mental health counseling to all students as well as to continue educating the entire campus community about the critical role that mental health and wellness plays in overall functioning.

While we continue to battle the stigma associated with mental illness — especially in minority and immigrant communities — educational programs and presentations by nationally-recognized speakers who are living and thriving with bipolar disorder and depression are helping students understand that mental health conditions are not only common, but treatable.

Most importantly, they’re helping students see that’s there’s no shame in seeking help.

During this fall’s Welcome Week, for example, HCF funding allowed us to bring Richie Contartesi to campus. Richie told students his story of battling depression and suicidal thoughts as well as the struggles he faced as a child living in poverty. Richie also described how he overcame these challenges to achieve his dream of playing college football at “Ole Miss” despite being 5’7” and 155 lbs.

Students left the presentation determined to follow Richie’s advice to write down their goals, to never give up, and to build relationships with people who can help them. In the words of one participant, “He really inspired me. I believe I can overcome my fear and make it to where I need to be.”

As the current uncertainty faced by the Trump administration’s ending of DACA protections has increased the anxiety and uncertainty that some of our students are experiencing, we are grateful that HCF support has enabled us to have a licensed counselor available to assist them. To meet our students’ needs, Donnelly will continue to offer a broad range of student support services, of which mental health counseling is a critical component.

Together, these services have helped increase our fall-to-spring retention rate from 59% to 75% over the past three years.

Donnelly students already face so many obstacles to college completion. We are determined not to let untreated mental health issues prevent them from earning their degrees.


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HCF's Local Health Buzz Blog aims to discuss health and health policy issues that impact the uninsured and underserved in our service area. To submit a blog, please contact HCF Communications Officers, Jennifer Sykes, at jsykes@hcfgkc.org.

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