Mindsoak: A Healthy Student Body

My first feature for Mindsoak this November emerged from a phenomenon I encounter every semester around this time–weeks 12-13 in a 15-week semester:

Students flooding my office hours

For most of the semester, my office hours (where I am expected to be ‘in office’ to meet with students if they choose to stop by) are completely empty. But there is something about this time of the semester–many students are looking ahead towards finals week and their final grades, other students are considering whether they should late-drop a course before the deadline due to their performance so far–that propels students to seek out their professors for a one-on-one meeting.

Image result for penn state gift of bench
We are. . .

And, in my experience over the last 10 years of teaching in higher education here at Penn State, the vast majority of my meetings with students at this point involve me helping students connect with counselors and other mental health services because their symptoms of anxiety or depression (the two most common mental health issues my students describe coping with) have reemerged or worsened due to the academic stress brought on by the looming end of the semester. Alternately, I also regularly encounter students who have experienced some form of trauma during the semester which they have attempted to cope with on their own (sexual assaults being one common traumatic experience) but are now finding themselves unable to manage with the added pressures brought along with the end of the semester.

Just to be clear: These students are not meeting with me to seek out adjustments to their grades or extensions on assignment deadlines due to their struggles with mental and emotional health.

In my experience, these students are adamant about continuing to meet their academic responsibilities, but simply find themselves at a loss as to how to do so given their emotional burdens. In other words, they are coming to me and my colleagues for help.

But as I discuss in detail in my Mindsoak essay, the mental health care for students at Penn State and most other universities in our country is already stretched incredibly thin due to limited funds.

Where does that leave students and the faculty trying to support them? Read on to find out. . .





My University is Misusing Our Emergency Alerts: What does this mean for campus safety?

For almost ten years, my university has employed an emergency alert text-messaging, phone call, and e-mail system (currently called PSUAlert) to alert students, faculty, and staff of emergencies. I remember when announcements of the system first began to roll out via e-mails in my faculty inbox, and I was thrilled to see my university’s proactive approach to maintaining safety on campus. I signed up for e-mail, text, and phone messages, assuming that emergencies would validate a multi-portal approach to notification. For example, if there were an active shooter incident on campus, I would want to be made aware as soon as possible as many ways as possible.

Unfortunately, over the years PSUAlert has become a tool for notifying campus subscribers of information that comes across more as the university’s attempt to protect themselves from liability after unsafe events occur on campus, rather than as a notification tool used for protecting its campus residents and employees.

Recently, over the course of less than a week, I received over 10 alerts from the notification system, each of them detailing whether phones were currently working, not working, or partially working on campus.

10 Alerts!

Not even considering the other concerning matter that a renowned higher education institution cannot manage to maintain their phone lines (which, granted, is disturbing) I am left astonished that a mechanism for alerting subscribers to emergencies could be so patently misused to the point that, instead of protecting campus, it is placing our campus at risk.

Emergency Line Voicemail 2

How does this over-notification go beyond mere annoyance into significant risk? One word:


What this term refers to is an individual’s diminished response to a stimulus given repeated exposure over time. Evolutionarily, we are primed as human beings to attend to stimuli that are novel and/or that we associate with danger. Overuse of the PSUAlert system fights both of these currents of attention. The numerous alerts throughout one day eliminate any sort of novelty and the overwhelming nature of the alerts (i.e., non-threatening) serve to dispatch any likelihood that subscribers will attend to the messages when they arrive. In fact, as the recent slew of ‘phone-gate’ alerts were coming across, I was in a store making a purchase when my phone rang. I checked it and then calmly told the store clerk that it was just the PSU Emergency Alert system calling again.

And then I put the phone back in my person without checking the voicemail.

Emergency Line Voicemail

This is not what alert messaging systems are meant to do, and it goes without saying that, if in fact that message I received had been about an imminent threat on campus, I would have missed it due to my own desensitization to the Alert System.

This is the exact opposite of PSUAlert’s intended purpose!

Another layer to add to the PSUAlert failure is it’s use of notifying subscribers when a sexual assault is reported on campus. My concern about this goes back, again, to desensitization. These messages notifying us of a reported sexual assault are not phrased as calls to action and often do not include information about suspected perpetrators, but rather focus on providing the demographics of the report: date/time/location.

Timely Warning

During certain periods of campus life, such as home football game weekends, subscribers will receive perhaps 3-4 alerts of reported sexual assaults via PSUAlert. As these accrue over time, initial responses of horror and empathy can give way to a sort of apathy. As subscribers, we are not given any option for agency in response to these reports of assaulted women and men. Instead, we are seemingly encouraged through the alert medium to sit passively by, and as we encounter the same messages again and again we run the significant risk of these assaults becoming ‘normalized.’

What does this mean for us as a community?

I wish I knew.

It’s incredible to me that my university, which has a highly regarded prevention research center, has not examined the effects of the PSUAlert system on campus safety and, more to the point above, community views of sexual assault survivors and perpetrators. I cannot find any data regarding the influence of PSUAlert or any other university emergency alert system on its subscribers.

Isn’t it important to know whether we are becoming desensitized, not just to emergency alerts, but also to the traumatic experiences of survivors? At my university, we know better than to employ a universal system without first examining its efficacy. In my field of developmental science, it has been shown again and again that good intentions have no bearing on good outcomes, and certainly do nothing to prevent treatments or interventions from proving harmful instead of helpful (ahem, D.A.R.E., Scared Straight, the list goes on and on).

For me, that’s the most important question we need to be asking as engaged citizens.

Given the way PSUAlert is currently used, it is helping or harming us as a community?

I want to know–don’t you?

Emergency Line Emails