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Anticipating Learner Needs Through Innovation: A Partnership in Mental Health Support

Fulfilling your institution’s mission means showing up for your students. In light of the hardships experienced over the past year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is all the more important to integrate accessible and innovative mental health support and services into higher education. 

Innovating is hard work, especially during a pandemic. 

In times of uncertainty and loss, people seek what is familiar. They pursue comfort to offset the insecurity that comes from change. Asking professionals to push the horizons of higher education when basic safety needs weigh heavily on their minds can be a challenge. At Rasmussen University, this is exactly what we did in 2020. And the results of these innovation efforts provided a needed mental health safety net for our students. 

I was in a rental car driving from O’Hare Airport to an all-university meeting in the suburbs of Chicago in January 2020 when I first heard of COVID-19. Rasmussen’s vice president of nursing told me about international reports of this novel coronavirus and its potential to spark a global pandemic. Little did we know this all-university meeting would be one of the last in-person gatherings we would experience for over a year.

It was at this all-university meeting that Rasmussen’s Office of Academic Innovation introduced Shangri-Lab, an innovation incubator that brings staff and faculty ideas from concept to reality. Shangri-Lab is a place for dreams small and large, and a professional development opportunity for Rasmussen’s people. All participants receive design thinking training and subsequently pitch their innovative ideas to Rasmussen University leadership who choose which ideas to select for implementation and funding. 

Before anyone knew the impacts COVID-19 would have on our nation’s citizens and higher education landscape, three Rasmussen University admissions advisors saw a pressing need among our student population and acted upon it. Through their daily interactions with incoming students, Darnice Cloudy, Jordan Hessinger and Yvonne Avila understood the need for mental health support. Conditions for some learners could range from general anxiety to matters more acute, but these three understood that mental health challenges could be a hurdle for students seeking to complete their degrees and advance their careers. They used Rasmussen University’s Shangri-Lab innovation incubator to submit an idea: offer mental health support to all Rasmussen University students at no additional charge. Most may not need it, but at least the support is always a click away with no additional financial barriers to receiving help.

In June of 2020, this Shangri-Lab idea was among three chosen by Rasmussen University for implementation and funding. Shortly afterward, Rasmussen entered into a partnership with Togetherall to provide all our learners mental health services.

In November 2020, Rasmussen unveiled Togetherall’s mental health platform to its students. It is accessed through the university’s mobile app and online student portal. Through these avenues, any active Rasmussen student can–at no additional charge–access a variety of mental health support options: 

  • An inclusive online peer-to-peer mental health community in which learners may share their lived experiences, offering and receiving support 24/7.
  • Online courses, self-help resources and other tools to empower students to act on their own mental health.
  • A safe environment moderated 24/7 by licensed mental health practitioners  

These services were introduced to our students just prior to what is the most arduous time of the year for many: fall term finals week whose stress can be compounded by the December holidays. This time was particularly challenging in 2020, with the absence of family gatherings amid the pandemic. Since Togetherall’s November rollout, the Rasmussen University community immediately took to its support services, which received very positive feedback from learners and campus staff alike. Of those surveyed, a majority noted the service’s anonymity and 24/7 accessibility as the main reasons for seeking help from their peers on Togetherall. 

It is always essential, but especially during times of insecurity, for higher education leaders to listen to the voices of the students and those who support them. Create systems, like Shangri-Lab, that provide an exciting outlet for the thousands of improvement ideas swimming around your institutions looking for a time and a place to become reality. With such systems in place, higher education will be able to respond quickly–even anticipate–students’ needs just as Rasmussen did alongside Togetherall. 

Innovation is hard work, especially during a pandemic, but it is not nearly as hard as the challenges many of today’s learners must overcome on their way to graduation. At least they will not face them alone.

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