FIU and other state universities rally for critical student success, research initiatives

Joined by police chiefs, mental health counselors, medical school deans, and student leaders, the Board of Governors and presidents from all 12 of Florida’s public universities came together on Wednesday to rally support for additional mental health counselors and law enforcement officers, raising the State University System’s research profile, and rewarding university performance.

“We are committed to creating a safe environment and providing the tools our students need to graduate in four years and launch successful careers,” said FIU President Mark B. Rosenberg. “An investment in education is a down payment on our students’ future, job creation and our state’s economic success.”

Wednesday’s rally marked the kick-off of the Safer, Smarter, Stronger initiative, designed to demonstrate the return on investment for each of the System’s top priorities.
“Florida recently ranked top in the country for higher education in U.S. News & World Report, an achievement that inspires all of us to continue striving toward our goals,” said Board of Governors Chair Tom Kuntz. “By putting measures in place to optimize student retention and success, and by positioning our universities to be more competitive in research, we’re priming our state to meet its full economic potential.”

During the rally, Florida Senator Gary Farmer Jr. discussed the importance of funding mental health services for students.

According to Cheryl Nowell, assistant vice president of counseling and health services at FIU, students are more willing to seek counseling services than ever before. FIU also has put more resources into working with students in crisis, such as those at risk of suicide. That has meant fewer resources for students with ongoing mental health issues, such as depression. This also has resulted in creating more group therapy programs and using Therapy Assisted Online technology, an online program.

“Making sure our students receive the mental health support they need is crucial to their academic success,” Nowell said. “An investment in mental health resources is an investment in preparing our students for successful futures.”

Other Safer, Smarter, Stronger legislative priorities include funding for law enforcement. At FIU, increased funding would help police address issues related to mental health, said Police Chief Alexander Casas.

“We are facing increased demands regarding concerns about mental health and we need more funding and personnel to meet that demand,” Casas said. “We’re committed to providing a safe environment that promotes the physical, emotional, and mental health of all students, faculty and staff.”

Among the FIU Police Department’s efforts to address mental health includes its collaboration with the FIU Victim Empowerment Program to form a Special Victims Unit that works on criminal investigations of sexual assault, stalking, domestic violence, and dating violence. Police investigators work with mental health professionals, who counsel victims throughout the investigation and prosecution of the crimes. Although working with limited resources, the Special Victims Unit has received positive feedback from victims and their families.

FIU police officers also receive training that assists them in interacting with people who have mental illnesses, allowing them to de-escalate situations. Over the past few years, the police department has responded to an increasing number of cases that involve mental health, from 10 such incidents in 2012 to 47 in 2016.

The FIU Police Department also has representatives in the FIU Behavioral Intervention Team (BIT). This committee, which also includes other departments such as Counseling and Psychological Services and the Victim Empowerment Program, reviews cases of students with behavioral issues and makes referrals for appropriate services.  A large percentage of the cases that come before the BIT committee involve mental health issues.

Research is another Safer, Smarter, Stronger priority. FIU has joined other institutions in the State University System in finding solutions to global problems through research, including Zika and other diseases. Researchers in the FIU College of Arts, Sciences & Education, for example, are identifying molecular targets in mosquitoes to help develop better repellants. They are also developing a new bait to trap mosquitoes in an effort to reduce populations. At the FIU Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine researchers are studying how Zika gets into the brain, and the mechanism by which the virus enters cells. If they can find that mechanism, they can develop a drug to stop Zika, and using FIU-patented nanotechnology they can deliver the drug across the blood-brain barrier.

To read the Board of Governors’ legislative budget request, please click here.