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SASSI Focused on Mental Health and Well-being of Students

Students participate at a #takecare event hosted by SASSI in 2018. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, SASSI has continued services for students virtually in order to create a sense of connection and belonging.

The Office of Student Academic Support Services and Inclusion (SASSI) hasn’t let social distancing keep it from connecting with students at UTHSC to help them manage stress during the pandemic.

Their team has been focused on the mental health and well-being of students long before social distancing guidelines went into effect. The office has been able to maintain connections with students at the same level remotely without skipping a beat.

“Our staff hit the road running,” said Kathy Gibbs, MEd, MS, assistant vice chancellor for SASSI. “They have been so comfortable using Zoom and being able to connect with students really well.”

One of the first services SASSI offered early in the pandemic was a support group for student volunteers working on the frontlines, including the many medical and nursing student volunteers at the Tiger Lane drive-thru COVID-19 testing site.

SASSI services, including counseling and academic support, are offered virtually not just on the Memphis campus, but on UTHSC campuses across the state including the College of Pharmacy campuses in Nashville and Knoxville, and for students on clinical rotations in hospitals and clinics throughout Tennessee.

As students continue to have classes remotely, SASSI is adapting to the new challenges students face.

“The mental health concern is a big part of it, students dislike isolation,” Gibbs said. “Feeling isolated and alone, the motivation is impacted.”

Gibbs said that isolation can lead to increased perfectionist tendencies and imposter syndrome. “Students may begin to think they are the only ones who are having to study this much or study harder than they’ve ever had to study before. They may believe they are the only one who made a C on an exam. And that gets exaggerated when you have less time to talk with other students. In the classroom, students overhear others saying something like, ‘Oh gosh, I bombed that test.’ ”

Gibbs said that can add to self-doubt and wondering if they truly belong.

SASSI is working to normalize experiences students encounter as professional students at an academic health science center by being intentional about communicating frequently. Educational specialists and academic coaches have increased outreach emails and contact to assist in providing check-ins and wrap-around care services.

The SASSI CARE Team, a multidisciplinary group that engages in a proactive and collaborative approach to identify, assess, and mitigate risks associated with students who are exhibiting distressing or disruptive behaviors or thoughts, is just one of the ways the office is fostering a caring campus environment. The team has hired additional staff including a new care navigator, Katie Saucier.

The office is doing wellness check-ins and hosting groups virtually, so students can maintain mental health. One of those ways is through the SASSI Student-Led Support Group, which occurs weekly as a safe space to chat and feel connected.

SASSI Chat is a biweekly support service for UTHSC students to connect with counseling professionals remotely. SASSI stays abreast on the topics that may be impacting student mental health, including the current climate surrounding social injustice and racism. The brief support sessions allow students an opportunity to chat about any day-to-day stressors. Mental health support is also available to residents. SASSI has been able to identify more online and off-campus resources and support through eCHECKUP TO GO, JED, ULifeline, and Thriving Campus.

“If we keep students connected, we’re going to lower their chances of getting overwhelmed, or not feeling like they know someone at the university, or that they don’t belong,” Gibbs said. “We want them to feel like they belong and that UTHSC and SASSI care about them.”

For a full list of resources and services available through SASSI, please visit their website.