Boniface foundation grants SLU $100,000 to address students’ mental services


(Evie Ngyuen / The University News)

Saint Louis University has been awarded a hundred thousand dollars from the Boniface Foundation to fund mental health services on campus. The grant aims to mend SLU’s student community amid recent suicides and a local high school shooting. Sindhu Ragunathan, co-president of We Are Saath, a student group that advocates for South Asian mental health on campus, notes a few issues students have experienced with mental health resources.

“There is a lack of accessibility and diversity within the counseling center. South Asian students and other minorities on campus do not have a counselor to turn to that can relate to their experiences,” Ragunathan said. “SLU desperately needs more permanent, diverse counselors that can provide a range of counseling experiences for their diverse student population.” This ongoing issue, Ragunathan says, was again highlighted following the recent school shooting at Central Visual Performing Arts High School on Oct. 24, 2022. “I knew dozens of kids who needed counseling after the shooting. But they couldn’t even make an appointment since the counseling center was so backed up. The fact of the matter is that there is a lack of accessibility amongst SLU’s counselors,” Ragunathan said.

The trend Ragunathan points to is only projected to increase as students approach finals week in December. “In fact, students mainly come to our mental health events during finals and midterms week because they desperately need a reprieve from schoolwork. It’s good that We Are Saath is able to help out, but we do not have the training to counsel students on personal problems,” Ragunathan said.

According to SLU’s announcement on Oct. 10, the lack of counselors to serve the large student population is on their radar. The grant money aims to resolve these issues by supporting various mental health initiatives, including assisting SLU’s counseling center during high demand times.

“The foundation is very thoughtful on how we deploy our resources. We had a number of meetings with SLU and were very impressed with what we saw. We wanted to support the program for its growth and success,” said Win Reed, chairman of Boniface Foundation’s Board of Directors. Because SLU’s needs are concrete and manageable, Reed says, the foundation can assist. “We are to trust the program directors to dole out the money in the best way possible,” Reed said.

Eric Anderson, assistant vice president for student well-being at SLU, says the pandemic made it difficult for the counseling center to receive the money to train enough mental health instructors. “Now that we are back to in-person, we are going to use the grant to ramp up our mental health efforts,” Anderson said. $100,000 is much more money dedicated to mental health than SLU had previously. The breakdown of the funds might effectively meet SLU students’ needs. Anderson says that half of the grant money will support a four-year partnership with the JED Foundation, a nonprofit organization that addresses student mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention.

The JED Foundation will study the policies, education and services SLU currently has to provide feedback on how they can improve. JED will then create a plan to guide SLU’s efforts. “JED is a good way to make sure we are moving in the right direction,” Anderson said. “In fall 2025, JED will do another assessment to gauge where we need to do work and where we had success.” The other $50,000 will be divided into thirds. First, it will go to expanding mental health and first aid training, an initiative that has been around since fall 2019 which SLU struggled to complete during the pandemic.

It is important to note that these instructors are not counselors. Instead, they are from various departments on campus and teach mental health and first aid training in addition to their regular duties. Currently, SLU has trained 10 instructors to teach mental health training, all hired and coached between the spring and fall of 2022. This is a large increase from the center’s two instructors. “These mental health trainings are important in building students’ self-care toolkit. It aims to destigmatize mental health and think about it more like physical health. It teaches students how to be a first responder and friend that can support mental health struggles,” Anderson said. Ragunathan says these training sessions are a step in the right direction. “Mental health training is not as intuitive as one might think. When an individual is under their own stress, it is hard for them to know what to look for.

These training sessions give students the tools to help others,” Ragunathan said. The last two-thirds of the $50,000 will go to creating WellSPACE (Supporting and Promotive Artistic and Creative Expression) centers like a therapeutic garden and hiring more counselors for midterms and finals weeks. These two changes will lower the wait times during high stress weeks while providing students with more areas to destress on campus. In the next four years, individuals across campus hope to see SLU’s counseling center expand to better serve students. During the pandemic, there were some extra responsibilities given to student-led mental health organizations. Now, the counseling center has additional funds to lessen the pressure on these groups while making inroads in student mental health.