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K-State Today

October 25, 2011

Lending a virtual hand: First of its kind emotional health website wins award for using technology to reach campus community

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

A Kansas State University counseling services' website was recently recognized for its dedication to students' emotional health.

The University Life Cafe, https://www.universitylifecafe.org/, the first website of its kind in the nation, was honored with an Outstanding Work Award from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education's Cooperative for Educational Technologies, known as WCET. The award will be presented at the annual conference, Oct. 26-29 in Denver.

The award recognizes outstanding technology projects that promote student success in higher education. University Life Cafe was chosen for its dedication to providing information, resources and a creative outlet for all of the university's campuses and its global community of distance students.

Barbara Pearson, director of University Life Cafe, said the website meets an urgent need in the campus community.

"This engaging, community-based approach for university counseling services empowers the campus and larger community to recognize signs of risk for suicide and other mental health issues," she said. "It provides a safe venue for students to express themselves and reach out to trained counseling staff."

The site was originally developed with a three-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It has grown to feature The Brew, a student space with a variety of multimedia to promote expressiveness, and The Bookshelf, which offers wellness resources.

All content is contributed entirely by K-State students, faculty and staff, reaching approximately 23,500 students and 4,000 faculty and staff. Google Analytics reported that there have been site visits from 147 countries.

Pearson said an important part of University Life Cafe's success has been its student advisory board.

"We worked with students from the very beginning," she said. "Students and faculty were at the very core of the creative process."

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students; for every 100,000 students, approximately seven commit suicide, according to the American Psychological Association. A recent study by the American

College Health Association found that 9.8 percent have seriously considered committing suicide and 50 percent have engaged in suicidal ideation.

Pearson said that in the past, suicide prevention strove to identify at-risk students and to intervene in sufficient time to prevent tragedy, but as more studies have been done, professional counselors have turned more toward a community approach.

"By educating and empowering the larger community to recognize signs of risk for suicide, it was hoped that this greater emotional resilience would pervade the student, faculty, staff and larger community in order to provide greater protections for all," she said.

Putting K-State at the forefront of this approach to counseling, the University Life Cafe was developed to reach out to the community. Pearson said since the website's launch in 2009, at least one K-State student has used it to express emotional distress, resulting in a successful protective intervention by trained campus staff.

She added that virtual learning environments that involve life-critical issues require an understanding of the domain field, potential site users and carefully thought-out strategies.

"The site's effective practices of harnessing interactive technologies to create a virtual community of support to promote emotional health and well-being align with WCET's position to help member institutions learn about important issues facing on-campus and distance learning students in higher education," Pearson said.

University Life Cafe is now financially sustained by K-State's counseling services.