Does WashU Cares Truly Care?
WashU Cares, a faculty-run organization focused on directing students towards the adequate mental, academic, and social resources they need to thrive on a college campus, hopes to continue expanding its presence at WashU. Supporting each student on a case by case basis, WashU Cares works with higher-level administration to ensure students get the treatment that is best suited for their individual needs.
The current director of WashU Cares, Jessica Dyers, believes that her passion for the role will serve the organization well, as it works to grow far beyond its current status. Dyers previously served as a therapist for Habif Health, and her interests are in teaching skills to students and empowering them to adult independently of their families and advocate for themselves.
“I came over here because I am interested in systemic change,” Dyers said.
WashU Cares uses a case management model. With a WashU Cares Referral Form available on its website, any person can file a report for a student of concern. After receiving a report on a student — whether that be from WUPD, from ResLife, from email/phone, or its reporting system which is available to any student online — WashU Cares’ first step is emailing the student detailing what the organization is, what its scheduling availability looks like, and what the available mental health resources are on campus.
“I view a big chunk of what we do as validating and normalizing students’ experiences, making sure they feel heard and understood, making sure they know what is available to them, and helping them prioritize based off the stressor,” Dyners said. Whether that constitutes a gender identity component, a financial component, or a food insecurity component or even working with students who have been recently hospitalized, WashU Cares seeks to accommodate all students. “A lot of students we are meeting with have a lot of intersectionality going on,” she said.
Previously, students have claimed that the WashU Cares report system is largely arbitrary and does not seem to be making a clear impact on campus. “I did not know WashU Cares existed on this campus,” said Matthew Latronica, a first-year McKelvey student. Another student claimed that while they have not directly filed a report for WashU Cares, they have heard from peers that the reports go unaddressed.
“We are still currently evolving and just got new people,” Dyers said. “When the person filed the report, there was only two of us for 15,000 students — both undergraduate and graduate — so our ability to respond in the past probably looked a lot different than what it looks like now because we would prioritize reaching out to the student over the reporter.” In the previous system where two faculty were members in charge of over 700 reports, Dyers explained that the student of interest always came first, even if it came at the expense of the reporter staying informed.
“It actually felt really bad. It was not the quality of care we want,” Dyers said.
Now, WashU Cares is a team of four, and hopes to provide a level of care that it was previously unable to do. “I would like a post-response to a reporter every single time,” Dyers said. “I just think the nuance of our position makes it kind of confusing sometimes. Like what do they do? How do they do it?”
In the past, WashU Cares has received 500-800 annual case reports, excluding the 2020-2021 academic year that was impacted by COVID-19. Of the 780 reports that were filed on 645 unique individuals in the 2019-2020 academic year, 9% were first-year students, 29% were sophomores, 25% were juniors, 23% were seniors, and 13% were graduate/professional students. Of the different report types, the largest majority of cases were filed on students exhibiting distressed behavior and poor mental health.
“What I like to do is advocate for the student and see if we need to change the system. Is the system in effect a product of racism or discrimination just because this institution wasn’t created for the students who are here now?” Dyers said. “My goal is…let’s make things easy. Let’s be transparent.” Dyers emphasizes the importance of ensuring students know what options they have available to them and allowing WashU Cares to be more student-facing.
While case management was started as a “threat assessment and monitoring students of concern,” Dyers said her big-picture goal to shift WashU Cares into a more preventative framework, where students can be monitored and cared for before they end up at Habif, not after. To do this, Dyers has collaborated with Junior Ethan Greenstein to further explore undergraduate practicums as a way of breaking down barriers and connecting with students. She also noted its initiative to hire more graduate students to help monitor those on medical leave of absences, providing a more comprehensive support system.
When it comes to student referrals, oftentimes WashU Cares deals with students who are resistant to its initial outreach. In that case, case manager Jordan Cooper works to send out more personalized emails to check in on students. However, Dyers noted that a large part of her role in the organization is respecting student autonomy.
“Just because a student’s emotions make you uncomfortable doesn’t mean you have the right to tell that student how they should make their decisions,” Dyers said. “A big part is how do we allow students to make their own decisions even if that feels uncomfortable to watch?”
As a result, Dyers acknowledges that there is a gap between the work WashU Cares is doing for the student and the information they can share with the original reporter.
Another challenging aspect of communication is that Dyers isn’t always at liberty to discuss updates with the student reporter. “I may not be able to share information with a student reporter because of FERPA; it is a need-to-know basis, and it’s private. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot going on on the other side of it,” she explained. This confidentiality policy holds unless the report poses a threat to self or others, which would require the attention of Dean of Students Rob Wild to mandate the student to meet with WashU Cares to have them connected to care.
While the WashU Cares model is not crisis-oriented, its role in student life is more than just referrals. Many students often meet with the WashU Cares team on a weekly basis, with a range of needs from bipolar disorder to eating disorders.
The overarching motto of the organization is “we want what you want.” Unlike traditional mental health resources on campus, WashU Cares has one main goal: to offer students all the possible options in their pathway to choose what feels right to them. Even if those options feel taboo or aren’t traditionally recommended, Dyers believes that the individualized problem-solving that the organization offers is what differentiates them from other student mental health groups.
Dyers noted that oftentimes people don’t have the energy to do the “hustling” that WashU Cares does for students. “I staff a weekly care and concern team meeting with administration, so I work with WUPD; I work with ResLife. I am following up on issues with students and trying to connect the dots and get things answered for themI am doing that information gathering on the back-end of students and presenting those options.”
While the organization has had flaws in the past with response time and communication efforts with students, now with double the staff team and big goals for the future, it hopes to continue making its impact on campus. “I don’t think we’re perfect. But I think we really care,” Dyers said. “We talk about systemic oppression every single day, probably all day long, and I think that is really the core of why we do the work that we do — is to change the system.”