Early Alert: How UBC identifies and supports struggling students

UBC’s Early Alert system, designed to flag students facing mental health challenges, continues to expand as more and more referrals are made through it each year. In 2018, there were over 2,000 alerts.

Installed as an early intervention system in 2012, Early Alert allows faculty and staff to connect students who they notice struggling with university resources before their academics or personal lives are impacted.

“It’s much better to do that with a student early on as opposed to at the end of the term after they've already maybe failed a course and haven't done as well as a hoped,” said Chad Hyson, director of student conduct and safety at UBC.

“The earlier we can identify who might need additional support the better.”

Psychology lecturer Dr. Benjamin Cheung said the service allows faculty and staff members to provide greater support in areas where “they are not the expert.”

“[Early Alert] takes it out of our hands in a good way because we don’t have the resources and we don't have the training necessarily to be able to handle ... these mental health cases,” Cheung said.

Intervening early

Early Alert follows the stepped-care model of integrated health, where support can range from online, peer-support and self-help resources to individual and group counselling based on student’s needs.

The service operates through the Campus Wide Login and allows secure access for faculty, staff and teaching assistants to make alerts.

According to data provided by UBC Managing Director of Student Development & Services Janet Teasdale, Early Alert has classified approximately 47 per cent of alerts as mental health and well-being concerns and 32 per cent as academic concerns since the program’s launch.

One resource students are often referred to is AMS Empower Me, a 24/7 mental health hotline.

AMS VP Finance Kuol Akuechbeny said Empower Me counsellors have so far received 4,000 phone calls from students with issues ranging from mental health to personal, academic and financial struggles.

But overall, only around 30 per cent of early alerts require outreach. Teasdale and Hyson note students who are notified by Early Alert are often already receiving support from various on and off-campus resources. Faculty also often refer students to resources themselves and contact Early Alert to confirm they sent the student to the most appropriate place.

Students who receive alerts can also choose not to see an advisor — but approximately 85 per cent accept the offer.

“... For somebody to be able to say, you know, you’re struggling we want to make sure that you get the support so that you can be successful is really important,” Hyson said.

Alerts do not appear on student records and only the Early Alert team and advisors receive access to student information on a need-to-know basis.

Expanding outreach

With these usage rates, both Early Alert and Empower Me aim to continue expanding in the future.

In an emailed statement to The Ubyssey, Hyson noted that Early Alert has trained “approximately, 3,000 faculty, staff and TA’s” since its launch.

There is also a gradual shift from mainly staff members making alerts to an equal number of alerts from staff and faculty, which Hyson said is “great because [faculty] are the ones who see students day in day out and interact with them the most.”

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Along with offering online and department training sessions, Early Alert also provides information on UBC health resources that can be incorporated into syllabi and lecture slides to make it more accessible.

“Students often go back to their faculty members and say “Thank you for doing that, I got the resource I need … and that kind of feedback loop means that members more likely to use it again,” Teasdale said.

For Empower Me, Akuechbeny said its biggest goal is to continue outreach within the student body. In particular, only students who are registered on the AMS health plan receive emails about the service, leaving out a sizeable portion of the student population, which he hopes to change.

“[We want to] improve our communication, discuss how we communicate with students so that they know about it,” he said, “because one concern we have in the community… [is] sometimes something good is happening and … a number of people may not have been aware.”

This article has been update to clarify Chad Hyson’s position.