Task forces reinforce the idea that promoting student mental health and preventing suicide are responsibilities shared by many different campus administrators, staff, and faculty. Task forces also can ensure efficient use of resources and elimination of duplicate efforts. Efforts to promote student mental health and prevent suicide are more likely to succeed when there is broad participation and a shared commitment to meet common goals.
If a campus is not ready to start a task force, an individual can simply invite conversations with faculty, staff, and students to hear their concerns. Data collection is another good first step. Campus or national data, showing risk factors and groups, and a summary of the issues of concern to key campus stakeholders can help convince senior administration that a formal task force should be formed.
Most task forces include the counseling center director and representatives from student affairs, residence life, and health services – areas where staff have high student contact. It also is essential to involve the director of health and wellness, health promotion, or health education, who can bring experience with a public health approach to the effort. Including administrators with the ability to make decisions about resource allocation and staffing also makes sense.
Possible Mental Health Promotion/Suicide Prevention Task Force Members
Mandate and Timeline
Often it is the president, provost, or vice president of student affairs who orders the formation of a mental health task force and gives it a mandate. Other task forces may begin as a group of concerned staff simply talking about the issues, who then ask a senior administrator to create a formal task force and may even write the mandate on the administrator’s behalf.
In general, the charge for a task force for mental health and wellness could be to develop a strategic action plan, including an initial assessment of mental health programs, services, and campus culture. Campuses starting a new mental health task force may need to take a year or more to gather existing data, define priorities, collect additional data, and set goals for addressing other more complex problems. To some extent, the timeline may simply be a reflection of how much time members are able to devote to the work. Certainly, the time commitment can be a barrier to some, but stakeholders will be most willing to give of their time if the expectations for their participation are clear and meetings are productive.
Once recommendations are made, the task force often takes on the responsibility for overseeing the creation of a program implementation and evaluation plan. When this shift from planning toward implementation occurs, task forces may decide to reduce membership or create a smaller executive group while maintaining the larger group for less frequent meetings to review progress and reassess the overall plan.
Effective task force leaders possess a range of skills relating to coalition building, strategic thinking and planning, and program implementation as well as personal qualities that enable them to serve as change agents. They identify ways to keep mental health and suicide prevention on the agenda and think creatively about opportunities to move existing efforts and goals forward.
Some campuses have an official chair or co-chairs – the vice presidents of academic affairs and student affairs – as well as a “working” chair – the counseling center director, for example. It can be advantageous to have the director of wellness, health promotion, or health education serve as co-chair with the counseling center director, as health promotion professionals have essential knowledge and skills in public health practice, an area with which mental health clinicians may be unfamiliar.
Campuses have used a variety of mechanisms to keep task force members informed, by publishing minutes that are available on private or public websites, electronic mailing lists, or email. Task forces have requested time on department meeting agendas to give updates and hear from faculty and staff. They also have communicated issues and progress using campus media outlets, including newsletters; websites; student newspapers, radio, and TV stations; electronic mailings lists; and flyers.
What senior administrators communicate to the campus community is important as well. Many task forces have a senior administrator send out communication, including the report of task force findings and recommendations, so that the information or instructions are received with a sense of importance. A task force member should be tasked with keeping the president, vice president, or provost informed of the task force’s progress.