This article is the second installment of a three part series: Examining Elon's Social Climate.
Whitney Gregory, assistant dean of students for student health and wellness and honor code, is in charge of making sure students get valuable information.
AlcoholEdu and Haven are two programs Elon University uses to educate its students on substance abuse. AlcoholEdu focuses on safety surrounding alcohol and drugs. It talks about sobriety, substance abuse and promotes healthy consumption practices. Haven addresses issues related to sexual assault, including definitions of consent and ways to intervene if someone has been or is about to be assaulted.
Gregory hopes the programs will help students make responsible decisions and give the university a chance to offer practical solutions.
“It’s not just about choices around alcohol but specifically Elon University policies and resources before they come to campus,” Gregory said.
Links to AlcoholEdu and Haven are sent out to incoming freshmen the summer before they arrive on campus. For some students, effectiveness is a concern.
Freshman Hannah Webster said many of her friends didn’t think much of the programs and saw them as “something every first-year had to take.”
Though many freshmen take the course simply to fulfill a requirement, alcohol abuse and sexual assault are serious issues affecting college campuses across the country.
One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college , according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. And more than 90 percent of those sexual assaults during college go unreported. Alcohol abuse kills about 1,800 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 each year due to alcohol-related injuries, including vehicle crashes.
A shocking amount of these deaths, incidents and assaults happen in what college administrators call the “Red Zone”, usually starting on the first day of school until Thanksgiving Break.
“That first six weeks is being called the 'Red Zone,'” Gregory said. “It’s where risks of all types of things are higher of students entering college.”
In the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study , it was discovered that a majority of college sexual assaults occur between August and November. The study also found that female victims are more likely to be assaulted early in their college career.
The red zone also increases the chances of binge drinking and alcohol abuse. Thirty-one percent of college students met criteria for a diagnosis of alcohol abuse, according to a questionnaire from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
“This is, for many Elon freshmen, the first time they are being exposed to heavy drinking and parties where risks are involved,” Gregory said.
She blames the increased risk of substance abuse on a college adjustment period she considers intense.
Webster had quite the adjustment herself. She moved from Maryland and adjusted a very different culture. She said she was not often exposed to drinking or sexual activity when she was in high school, so she feared college would be a bit of a culture shock.
Though there were some challenges in transitioning to Elon, programs like AlcoholEdu and Haven helped her feel better prepared.
“I thought everyone coming to college was super active in drinking and alcohol and sexual activity and things like that, but it was reassuring to see there were others like me who weren’t completely involved with that in high school,” Webster said.
Gregory admits alcohol use from high school is going to increase, but urges people to recognize the value benefits of AlcoholEdu. She claimed the red zone impact is much less compared to universities that don’t have any educational programs.
But studies have shown the benefit is only for a short period of time because students might not retain much after their first semester of college. Still, it puts every student on an even level with the same information.
“Having that information before students come in can make it easier to have everybody on the same page as far as framework,” Gregory said.
By having all incoming students on the same page, Gregory’s department can build upon its progress and continue to promote open conversations about sexual assault prevention and healthy choices surrounding drugs and alcohol.
Continued learning is a key part of what makes these programs resonate with students. After the freshmen complete the programs around August, they must complete a follow-up program in September. Doing so allows them to learn from a new perspective of actually being in college.
Assistant dean of students for health and wellness
The refresher course can guide students better in making decisions about how they choose to treat themselves and interact with their peers.
Though these courses aim to decrease the amount of alcohol abuse and sexual assault on Elon’s campus, the issues are still a dominant part of the university’s social climate.
“A couple times, people on our hall or people we brought back to our hall threw up all over the place,” Webster said. “We have to help them get back to their normal state or even call the ambulance.”
Such experiences are becoming more common on Elon’s campus. According to public records from Alamance Communications, an office that fields and stores all emergency vehicle calls in and out of Alamance County, the amount of ambulance calls on and off campus for people who “overdose” or are “unconscious” have almost doubled this academic year.
These calls are registered when any emergency vehicle, ambulance, fire or police vehicle travel to certain locations. These calls were for emergencies labeled “unconscious” or “overdose” recorded in the first three weeks of school for the years 2014, 2015 and 2016. In 2014 and 2015, emergency vehicles were called to on campus and off campus residences 17 and 15 times, respectively. In 2016, though, that number nearly doubled to 29.
Though these numbers seem to be increasing, Brooke Barnett, associate provost for Inclusive Community, said this is common when compared to other colleges.
“My understanding is that we’re pretty right in line with where other campuses are with things like problem drinking, instances of negative effects from alcohol,” Barnett said. “That doesn’t mean we want to be right in line with everybody else because that’s not a good place to be, but that gives us some sense of if there’s something exceptional happening at Elon.”
These incidents are not exclusive to freshmen, they could reflect the lack of effectiveness of programs like AlcoholEdu.
Webster said AlcoholEdu and Haven taught her small details about alcohol consumption. While she wants the programs to remain a requirement because some are unaware of substance abuse risks, personal experiences had the biggest impact during her freshman.
“Seeing those things as a group, we sort of feed off one another and know how to react in a proper way if it would happen again,” Webster said.
“It’s important to get people thinking about activities on college campuses because I think some are completely unaware.”
Elon University experienced tragic losses in 2015 and opened the door for conversations involving mental health. Demitri Allison fell to his death in November 2015 and Trent Stetler died in January 2015. Both deaths were ruled suicides.
Though there is a wide range of causes of these deaths, mental illness is a serious problem on many college campuses, including Elon.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in America have a mental illness. The organization also claims 90 percent of those who die by suicide have an underlying mental illness.
Though there is a wide range of causes of these deaths, mental illness is a serious problem on many college campuses, including Elon.
Active Minds is an organization on campus trying to combat the stigma surrounding mental illness. Senior Lyndsay Clark, president of the Active Minds chapter at Elon, added that there is something unique about Elon when it comes to mental illness.
“At Elon specifically, I always like to say it’s like a competition of who can be the most stressed,” Clark said. “Nobody should want to win that competition, but we’re all just so over involved and I think that is a great thing but it can also have really bad implications for mental illness.”
Jennifer Brigman works as a counselor at Elon and said anxiety is the number one issue she and her colleagues help students cope with.
“A lot of times students will come to counseling and say, ‘I’m just so anxious and I don’t know why’ or ‘I’m just so stressed and I don’t know why’ or ‘There is not really a lot going on, but I can’t get these thoughts out of my head,’” Brigman said.
Brigman has worked as a counselor at Elon for six years and has never seen so much wide spread anxiety on campus.
“This generation is the first generation that has not known a world without Facebook or a world without a phone in their hand,” she said. “That’s changing the social dynamic of the campus.”
Elon tackles student stress
There are numerous groups and programs on Elon’s campus that offer support to students struggling with mental illness or disabilities. First off, there is the counseling center. According to Brigman, a staff of five counselors sees 5-7 different students each day.
Counseling Services does a significant amount of outreach. For example, Brigman offers a workshop called “ Unplug” twice a month. The workshop is designed to offer students a chance to gather in a quiet space to practice mindfulness.
Students aren’t the only ones taking advantage of these workshops, though.
“For me, it’s an opportunity to step away from the busyness of my work and just try and find some centering and be better at what I do by giving myself some reflective space,” said Joan Ruelle, a workshop attendee and university librarian.
While Counseling Services works to help students cope with their daily stresses, the Disability Services and Academic Advising offices are responsible for providing fair accommodations to students whose mental illnesses or disabilities impact their classroom performance.
“Sometimes students with anxiety need extended time on tests,” said Susan Wise, director of Disability Services. “Sometimes they just need to test in a quieter or isolated location. Sometimes it’s about flexibility with attendance because they have trouble making it to class.”
Wise said that at most schools, 10-12 percent of students work with a disabilities office on campus. At Elon, 14 percent of students are registered with Disability Services.
Areas for growth
As Elon continues to promote its student resources, some departments are in need of additional resources.
Sophomore Stefanie Milovic was first diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety in high school. Though she sees a counselor at Elon every week, she has still experienced the consequences of staff shortages in Counseling Services.
“The first time I felt like I really was going down that slippery slope, I had to wait two weeks before I could get my first appointment,” Milovic said. “It would have been far more useful to be able to start off with one right away.”
It’s not just the students feeling the burden of a lack of resources. Brigman said Counseling Services is in dire need of an additional staff member.
“We are swamped and we are understaffed,” she said. “We are working desperately to get more staff because we are being utilized a lot and we have increased our outreach.”
For the counselors, it’s difficult to show the administration just how much of an impact an increase in funding could have.
“Ninety percent of our job or more is in a room with the door closed, and everything that happens behind those closed doors is confidential,” Brigman said. “A lot of our work goes unseen unless we’re doing outreach.”
It is worth noting not all information is kept between counselor and client. According to the site’s confidentiality page, “mental health professionals have a legal responsibility to disclose client information without prior consent in certain cases to protect clients and others.” Cases include when a student poses a threat to harm themselves or others.
The overall number of U.S. college students taking advantage of counseling is increasing. A recent Center for Collegiate Mental health report stated that over the last six years, the number of students seeking services at counseling centers increased by about 30 percent.
Wise claims the increase is a direct result of the growth in educational opportunities for students with disabilities or mental illness.
“It’s sort of a nationwide trend that offices like ours are going to be seeing more and more of those students make it into college,” Wise said. “It used to be that students with mental health issues didn’t necessarily get to go to college or feel like they could go to college.”
While more and more students are taking advantage of the resources Elon provides, there is still room for improvement. Clark said many students are still reluctant to discuss the issue of mental illness.
President of Active Minds at Elon
“People want to say they want to talk about it, but when they actually come to the opportunity to talk about it, it’s maybe not as spoken about because of that stigma that surrounds it,” Clark said.
Still, she feels safer speaking out at Elon compared to other places.
“I feel more comfortable talking about it here then I would at home,” Clark said.