When it comes to supporting student wellness, TU President Gerard P. Clancy, M.D., doesn’t shy away from confronting tough topics like substance abuse and mental health. His familiar refrain to students — “Take care of yourself, take care of each other and step in before trouble happens” — encapsulates his proactive approach, which includes an updated alcohol policy, bystander awareness training, expanded mental health resources and more.
Earlier this year, Clancy was invited to serve on the National Academies for Science, Engineering and Medicine committee on Supporting the Whole Student: Mental Health, Substance and Well-being in Higher Education. The National Academies harness the power of the nation’s best minds to provide nonpartisan, objective guidance on pressing issues ranging from improving the quality of health care to guarding against cyber attacks. As part of the student-focused committee, Clancy will join experts from around the U.S. to formulate national policies that guide federal funding and recommendations that other universities can adopt as best practices.
Clancy is one of only a handful of university presidents in the United States who are also physicians – and the only psychiatrist. He says his professional background influences the way he leads the university. “In the field of medicine, you are taught to take in information and the patient’s history, perform an exam, read lab results and create a diagnosis. The diagnosis determines your treatment plan, and then you implement that plan,” he said. “All of my career, I’ve been a problem solver. Medicine moves really fast, and sometimes, universities don’t move that fast.”
In just three years at TU’s helm, Clancy’s proactive measures have netted meaningful results. Instances of alcohol intoxication and poisoning are down, and student confidence in the administration’s ability to handle sexual assaults has increased from 59% to 89%. The number of sexual assaults also has decreased along with the severity of assaults.
Getting to the root of the issues
Clancy notes that in recent years, mental health problems have risen on college campuses nationwide. “There has been a significant increase in clinical depression and anxiety conditions over the past five years among students,” he said. And although alcohol use has improved, the use of both marijuana and e-cigarettes have increased.
He explains that substance abuse among college students dates back 30 to 40 years, as pop culture normalized alcohol use and sexually aggressive behavior. “We are trying to change that culture,” said Clancy. “Binge drinking is not normal or fun; it causes harm to others and also can be the start of addiction or a trigger for depression. Movies like ‘Animal House’ and ‘Old School’ portray sexually aggressive behavior in a humorous light, and it’s not humorous.” He says that as a psychiatrist who took care of people in vulnerable situations, he saw the dark side of those behaviors.
Start with the stigma
As president, Clancy looks at how TU can implement preventive measures to guard against the issues that plague so many college campuses. The first step to overcoming issues such as addiction and depression: Start with the stigma. “The biggest hurdle is getting people to talk about these issues and to understand that help is available. It’s not a sign of weakness; these are diseases and diseases need help.” He credits the current study body for its willingness to discuss these topics openly and honestly and says that wasn’t necessarily the case when he arrived at TU as dean of the health sciences college.
Today, students receive support from multiple points of contact. “We’ve done a lot of work with our faculty to make sure they know how to refer students for help,” Clancy explains. That effort includes Cognito training, which educates faculty about how to understand and interact with student veterans. TU also established the Center for Student Success in 2019, which brings services such as tutoring, career guidance, psychological counseling and financial coaching under one roof. If any of those staff members spots a potential problem, they know how to point a student to the best resource for assistance. Students also participate in bystander awareness training and TU is in the process of rolling out mental health first aid services.
To ease the transition to freshman year, JumpstartTU brings together a cohort that includes first-generation students, faculty and staff. The group travels to Panama for an immersive summer experience. After two years of the program, the retention rate for JumpstartTU students is about 10 percentage points higher than those who do not participate. This year, TU also offered a summer bootcamp for freshmen who need extra help with math or science. Clancy says the goal of these programs is to help prevent stress, which can be a root cause of depression and a driver of substance abuse.
Clancy’s wife, Paula, raised $300,000 to establish the First Lady Emergency Fund to serve as a safety net for students who find themselves in sudden financial trouble. Faculty and staff can notify TU’s financial aid office if they know of a student who needs help. The university also utilizes a software program called DropGuard that alerts advisers if a student has missed class, so that a staff member can ensure the student’s well-being. Other initiatives focus on instilling resiliency with a goal of preventing anxiety and increasing retention.
“We’ve adopted a student success mindset of ‘Let’s catch them before they fall’ as much as we can,” said Clancy. “We are paying attention to emerging issues and taking a wellness approach as opposed to a punitive approach, which is working well for us.”