Meaningful and effective overhauls of mental health services rarely happen. Still, changes to our systems are needed now more than ever before. College systems were not constructed with diverse, historically marginalized populations in mind. To truly support student populations, universities must be prepared to revolutionize how they deliver care.
This is something that Beth Lesen, Vice President of Student Affairs at California State University, Long Beach, is spearheading. Kira Matthews, GoodCourse Community Engagement Lead, sat down with Beth to discuss how her background in psychology has helped her work in Higher Education (HE), the university’s new mental health plan, and how to meet students where they’re at.
My name is Beth Lesen, and I have the honor of serving as the Vice President for Student Affairs at California State University, Long Beach.
I actually worked as a therapist; my doctorate is in psychology. I worked in inpatient and outpatient psychiatric settings. I loved the work but felt frustrated with how the system was structured. Appeasing health insurance companies and diagnosing and pathologizing people before I could treat them were things I took issue with. Then when 9/11 happened in 2001, I did some soul-searching. I looked for similar work that didn’t have those structural issues. One of the industries where I could do that was HE, which I had worked in during grad school, so I decided to switch.
When I did my doctorate in psychology, my intention was to be a lifelong counseling psychologist. I would never have guessed that I would be in this position now, but I use my training now in so many ways. When I’m talking with students, I listen with empathy and truly hear them, which I also do with staff and colleagues. I rely on my training often, especially when creating our mental health plan. We have been revolutionizing how college campuses approach mental health, which I would not have been able to participate in as fully as I have done without having had my background.
I would love to! It’s what I’m currently most excited about. The plan is a model for how campuses should be handling mental health right now. Developed a little over two years ago, it’s a large-scale mental health strategic plan for the entire campus. It centers health equity in really powerful ways, particularly for our campus, which is a large urban public institution that serves between 39,000 and 40,000 students every year, as well as 6,000 staff. With our size and diversity, we needed to be strategic in our approach to mental health.
We planned to do this before the pandemic hit. I was hired just before the pandemic. In my interview with the president, who is also a psychologist, we discussed the need to create this plan. After the pandemic hit, that need increased exponentially.
Not only do we center health equity, but it’s an enormous campus-wide plan. Sixty-five different initiatives are attached to it right now. It’s all on our website, so anyone who wants to look at it is welcome to. When we started this project, we sought out other plans to help with our scope, but no one wanted to reinvent the wheel, so we had a hard time finding any. Now that we’ve written one ourselves, we don’t want others to have to start from scratch, so anyone can see and use our plan.
Part of it is the scale. This is not just to do with the number of students we can reach but the campus-wide nature of it. It isn’t localized to the counseling center or student affairs, which is what many campuses do. Ours is an active, campus-wide commitment, not just lip service. Everyone is involved in making strides toward a mentally healthy campus.
The centering of health equity is also unusual. We have to do this to impact our student population. Many of our students are from historically minoritized backgrounds. The research evidence shows that our students don’t tend to trust institutions for very historically justifiable reasons. When they’re struggling, their first instinct is not to ask a university for help, which I think is true for most universities in our country. Yet, if you look at mental health services provided, the overwhelming majority of them require students to ask for help. As long as there is a disparity between a population that isn’t comfortable asking for help and services that require one to ask for it, we will always be under-serving that population, who tend to get overlooked.
As long as there is a disparity between a population that isn’t comfortable asking for help and services that require one to ask for it, we will always be under-serving that population, who tend to get overlooked.
We are creating an approach to mental health that’s much more proactive. It’s about changing how we deliver support to suit the needs of our diverse population.
We do need to talk about mental health differently. We’re actually reaching out to students. Our peer mentors and educators text students at high-stress times during the semester. We know when mid-terms and finals are and when students start to run out of financial aid. So now we strategically text students to offer help and support. About 47% of our students who receive the text answer it. Some just say they’re fine but thank us for reaching out; others say they’re struggling financially or academically. One responded that they needed immediate help — their father had just died. These are people who hadn’t reached out.
We recently experienced a tragedy with a lethal shooting in Monterey Park, California, which is just half an hour from our campus. Eleven people were killed. Some of our students live in that area; we didn’t know what the incident meant for our population, but we needed to find out. I pulled the emails of our students living in the zip codes around that area and emailed all of them to send support and offer help. We found out that one of our students lost her mom in the shooting. I don’t know if we would have known that if we didn’t reach out. It’s important for us to go to our students because I don’t know that they’re necessarily going to come to us.
It truly is. So every time something happens in our community, we go straight to our students to see how we can support them, especially those who might have been impacted more personally.
We were the first in our system to create something called a mobile crisis team. This is where we embedded mental health professionals into our police departments. Now, when there are incidents on campus that look like they might be mental health related, we have mental health professionals respond either instead of or alongside police. This has really increased our community’s inclination to call the police because they don't necessarily want a uniformed officer to take the lead during a psychiatric crisis or when something isn't necessarily criminal but needs immediate support and attention. It has been very successful.
The entire campus has been focused on supporting students through graduation and ensuring they can stay on track and leave here with a degree. We also support them even beyond that in starting a career.
I can speak a little bit about what I do to that end. A lot of it is around our basic needs initiatives. We’re in Los Angeles county, which is one of the most expensive places to live in this country. The high costs of living are particularly challenging for college students because they are notoriously resource deprived. It can really cause homelessness and hunger.
Many of our students are housing and food insecure, making ends meet while being one emergency away from everything falling apart. A large number of our students have told us that there have been times when they had to decide between staying in school and staying housed, or whether to buy books or food. No one should have to make those decisions. It could be a car breakdown or a dental emergency that derails someone. So we spend a lot of time, energy, and resources ensuring that our students are housed, fed, and not having to make choices between their education and basic needs, all while retaining their dignity. Our services are anonymous. Our students are supported until they can support themselves independently again.
Learn everything you can. If there’s an opportunity to be on a new project, take it. If you have the opportunity to try a new job or do a new internship, then no job is too small. Some of the most valuable learning in my career has come from the most unexpected places, because I say yes a lot. So without making yourself exhausted, say yes as much as possible because you never know where a key piece of learning or connection can be made.
The second piece of advice I would give is to stay true to your heart. Listen to the advice and feedback given to you, make little adjustments as needed, but don't adjust so much that you don't recognize yourself anymore. Bend, don't break.
There are a few people who I admire quite a bit. I really admire my own college president, Jane Close Conoley. Her doctorate is also in psychology; she has always been warm, rational, and magnanimous. She is authentic and able to lead with strength. She really creates a beautiful culture for people to work in. I also admire Kevin Kruger because any conversation with him just packs information. You can walk away with information to contemplate for months after just one hour of talking to him. These two people are powerful in very different ways. I am really drawn to authentic leaders.
That’s a terrible question! I’m a reader — I can’t answer that. I can tell you that I’m reading a fascinating book right now; it’s called Happy Money by Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton. It’s specifically about, regardless of whether you have a lot of money or a little, how you can use it in ways that really bring joy to your life. It is broken into five principles; the first one talks about the importance of investing in experiences instead of things. I really love this idea that whatever resources you have at your disposal, you can use them to create meaning and joy in your life and the world.