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Meeting people where they are to provide essential crisis support

Two students walk down a hallway, one with an arm wrapped around the other to offer support.
When a crisis impacts the WSU community, trained professionals provide a coordinated response to meet the needs of those impacted.

When a shooting occurred near the WSU Pullman campus in December, students and others who lived in the apartment complex where the incident took place were quickly evacuated. Suddenly, they found themselves out in the cold, afraid for their safety, and unsure if they could rally for final exams the next day. 

“Sometimes students in these types of situations are numb and still trying to make sense of what happened,” Washington State University Assistant Dean of Students Heather Case said. “Their whole understanding of how the world operates has turned upside down, and sometimes they feel they can’t function normally.”

Case said the Pullman area has seen an unusually high number of crisis situations this academic year. Fortunately, students adversely affected by local, national, or international events have support in these difficult situations: The trained professionals in the Office of the Dean of Students, the WSU Police, and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) provide a coordinated response to meet students’ needs. 

As the December incident (in which no student was harmed) was unfolding, Case and others helped transport the displaced residents (and their pets) to a warm location, provided food and clothing, and worked with students to notify their professors. 

To help students process their emotions – which can include fear, anger, confusion, sadness, and grief – in a healthy way, Case and Dean of Students Jenna Hyatt called on the CAPS team.

Case said CAPS is an essential part of the response team, whether it be at the scene of a crisis, in personal counseling sessions, or in group meetings with students, faculty, and staff. 

“I try to help students understand that what they are feeling is normal, and there is nothing wrong if they are struggling,” said Jennifer Ellsworth, CAPS director.

Not always behind closed doors

Providing students with coping skills early is key to helping them move through an experience as best as they can, and one of the most difficult experiences for a campus community is when a student dies. Whether they are helping people cope from a devasting loss like the death of a friend or navigate another type of crisis, Ellsworth and mental health professionals on all WSU campuses are “meeting people where they are,” an idea often applied literally and figuratively as they visit classes, department meetings, residence halls, Greek houses, and listening sessions to provide support and resources.

This type of community care was particularly important earlier this year following the arrest of Bryan Kohberger, a former WSU student who is charged with murdering four University of Idaho students. Hyatt, Case, and Ellsworth talked with students in classes Kohberger taught and attended, and CAPS participated in meetings with faculty and staff in the department where Kohberger was a graduate student. Following another incident that shook the nation, CAPS met with students in the Office of Multicultural Student Services following the death of Tyre Nichols, a Black man beaten by Memphis police officers. These sessions allowed participants to be seen and heard, and provided opportunities for CAPS to share available resources and encourage students to use them.

Each WSU campus has its own approach to providing on-site counseling support. On the Tri-Cities campus, Sylvia van Breda Vriesman, counselor and well-being coordinator, was summoned to the library last semester to help a student experiencing deep sadness from a relationship breakup. She was also called to the testing center to help a student experiencing a severe panic attack.

“A lot of interventions require a private setting, but I want our students to know that counseling doesn’t always have to happen behind closed doors,” van Breda Vriesman said. “Many connections can be made just walking around campus or visiting with students in the coffee shop.”

Contributing to student success

Whether they are helping students work through a panic attack or process their feelings following a crisis, Ellsworth and Case said their goal is to help students return to their normal lives and be successful. 

Case said this hands-on approach has made a difference in students’ lives – they drop by her office on occasion saying they would not be at WSU had they not received the help her office and CAPS provided them. 

“There is a lot of research that shows the most significant thing a person can do to change their trajectory in life is degree completion,” Case said. “If we can help keep students on track by meeting them where they are during their time of most need, what an incredible gift we’ve given them.”

If you are concerned about a student’s well-being, submit a referral to the Student Care Network (students can also self-refer). Faculty and staff who may benefit from counseling or other support services can utilize the Employee Assistance Program.

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