As more students struggle with mental health issues, one COPH professor is recognized for work in the field

| Academic & Student Affairs, COPH Office of Research, Featured News, Monday Letter, Our Research

Dr. Rita DeBate, a USF College of Public Health (COPH) professor, strives to make students more aware of the importance of mental health.

She recently won the Weiss Writing Prize for a mental health intervention she organized on the USF campus.

The Weiss Writing Prize is an honor awarded to the author of a publication focused on advancing mental health care among college students. It is presented by the American College Health Association (ACHA).

DeBate has been interested in mental health since before she even began her undergraduate education.

She started an intervention called “Mental Well-Being for Student Success” on campus about a year and a half ago. This intervention implemented a systems-thinking approach to better meet the mental health needs of the student population.

Rita DeBate, PhD. (Photo courtesy of USF Health)

“If we truly want to improve the mental well-being of our students, it’s important that we think beyond just the counseling center,” said DeBate.

This systems-thinking approach aims to better connect different organizations and resources around campus to both each other and to students. For example, staff from the Counseling Center and Student Health Services worked with the marketing team to create a message about the importance of mental health that would solicit responses and action from students.

The approach attempted to increase the number of male students who seek help for any mental or emotional struggles they may be dealing with, which was the primary topic of the paper, titled “The Effects of Stigma on Determinants of Mental Health Help-Seeking Behaviors Among Male College Students: An Application of the Information-Motivation-Behavioral Skills Model,” that won DeBate the Weiss Prize.

“When we looked at data from the USF National College Health Assessment (NCHA), we found that males and females were self reporting the same levels of stress, anxiety and depression,” said DeBate. “However, males were significantly less likely to seek care than females.”

The Wellness Center in the USF Marshall Student Center. (Photo courtesy of USF Student Affairs Community)

DeBate and her team found that males generally want to fix things themselves, without others knowing about it. Because of this, they decided to utilize social marketing as a way to increase the number of males on campus using TAO, the anonymous online therapy program that USF offers.

“Based on the positive response to that, we are launching a men’s health initiative that will increase messaging about men’s health issues to, again, increase help-seeking behaviors among males,” said DeBate.

As the intervention continues to grow, DeBate reflects back on the merits of using public health approaches to support mental health.

“I started my graduate work in clinical psychology and realized I didn’t want to treat mental health issues—I wanted to prevent the problems from happening. That’s why I ultimately went the public health route,” said DeBate. “I think to address mental health issues, you have to incorporate and collaborate with different organizations and resources. We couldn’t do the work we do without all of the help we get from the faculty and staff around campus. I have all of them to thank for our great evaluation results so far.”

Story by Cody Brown, USF College of Public Health