White House Mental Health Conference: Georgetown University

John DeGioia:
Thank you very
much, Mr. Secretary, for that kind introduction. I thought you were going to say,
“I’m now going to introduce a guy who wears a suit and tie and is going to bring
everybody back to class.” So, I am going to bring you back
to class, because I’m going to talk to you a little bit about
a program that we started at Georgetown about eight years ago
called the Angel Heart Project. And it’s named for a generous
benefactor who enabled us to put this program
into practice. And we developed this program as
a way to expand and strengthen our campus safety net, the
network of student affairs and academic affairs staff that’s in
place to support the well-being of each Georgetown student. We began the project because
many of our faculty were seeing some of their students clearly
struggling in one way or another and they wanted to be of help. And the Angel Heart Project was
developed as a way to more fully integrate our faculty into
our campus-wide safety net. Through Angel Heart, we helped
faculty infuse health and wellness topics
into their curriculum. Through course readings, writing
assignments, presentations by health professionals, and class
discussion, students are able to build their awareness
and knowledge about mental health
and well-being. And further, the relationships
built within this context between students, their peers,
and their professors helps to create more awareness of
and sensitivity towards — to others who are coping with
mental health challenges. And by providing appropriate
language and opportunities to talk about the issues in a
respectful and intellectually informed way, students also
become better equipped with the tools necessary
for grappling with contemporary
problems and issues. A couple of examples:
introducing students to the biological underpinnings
of depression while also talking about
recognizing outward symptoms, studying how cancer
cells develop, also hearing personal
stories from campus community members who
are cancer survivors. Over the last eight years,
the project has made a significant impact
across our campus. Since its launch, more than
60 faculty have been involved and we’ve reached over
7,500 undergraduates through 225 courses. We reach about 75 percent
of each entering class by the end of their
sophomore year. The intellectual underpinning of
this project is the belief that the student-faculty relationship
can be the most impactful relationship in a college
student’s life and that with the right professional
and institutional support, this relationship can have
a profound effect upon the overall mental
well-being of students. By bringing topics of health and
well-being into the classroom, the Angel Heart Project helps
to give mental health voice, validation, depth, and dignity. In so doing, it helps
to reduce the stigma that can be associated with
mental health challenges, and it has also had
positive effects upon the health and well-being
of our students. As you’ll see in a couple
slides that I’ll share with you, students who’ve taken
an Angel Heart course report being more comfortable
asking for help for themselves and also for sharing resources
with their peers. They also are thinking
more before they act, reporting changes in
behaviors already, and are more aware
of their health and its importance
to their own well-being. Students reported an increased
tolerance of other perspectives and an increased
openness, awareness, and sensitivity to others. And they are breaking down
stigma and stereotypes and becoming more attentive
and reflective, relating course content
to their own lives. In terms of lessons learned,
three quick points. We believe the Angel Heart
Project is successful because it meets our
students on a different turf than those of our other health
and well-being campaigns and initiatives. Traditionally, we’ve worked
with — in our residence halls and athletics and student life,
we’ve developed a comprehensive safety net through which we seek
to recognize students who have needs and then referring them
to the most appropriate places. By identifying a new context
in which we could reach our students,
the classroom itself, we’re able able to present a more comprehensive
outreach approach. We capitalized upon the
strengths of that new environment — that it’s a
place where students are already prepared to be intellectually
engaged and where openness and dialogue are fostered. With Angel Heart, we simply
developed a new context in which conversations and education
about mental health could talk place. Second, a key component
of Angel Heart’s success, the partnerships that it
has created across our campus by more deeply integrating
our academic, student affairs, and health personnel. And by uniting them
in our shared mission, we’re able to better leverage
each of their strengths. And finally is the importance
of tying this work into the very mission and the core values of
our institution by connecting this work to values such as the
education of the whole student or in our context the Latin
words “cura personalis” capture the idea of the care
for each individual student. By grounding this in the core
identity of the institution, it has empowered our faculty
and our student life and our athletics and our entire
university community in a way that is true to our
most authentic self. So, it’s a privilege to be able
to share this with you today and I look forward to our
conversation this afternoon. (applause)

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