Roos for Recovery: University of Akron receives federal grant to support mental health services


With a student population of more than 19,000 across all its campuses, The University of Akron (UA) could be considered the seventh-largest “city” in Summit County. As a large community, the University can encounter some of the same social problems prevalent in other cities across the United States, such as drug dependency and mental health issues.

UA is always looking for innovative ways to help members of its community improve their health and well-being. Recently, the University became one of 16 higher education institutions in the country to receive more than $250,000 in federal funding to add additional support for students who are recovering from drug and alcohol dependency.

The Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grant will provide $85,000 a year for three years. The grant was awarded to UA’s School of Social Work in January by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

According to SAMHSA, grant recipients must use the funds to enhance services for college students, including those at risk for suicide, depression, serious mental illness, and/or substance use disorders that can lead to school failure; prevent mental and substance use disorders; promote help-seeking behavior and reduce stigma; and improve the identification and treatment of at-risk college students so they can successfully complete their studies.

“In the spirit of best ensuring our students succeed in college and throughout their lifetime, and to diminish barriers for dropping out, we want to make sure there are sufficient services to assist with obstacles such as depression and addictive disorders,” said project manager John Ellis, professor of instruction and addiction curriculum coordinator in UA’s School of Social Work.

UA will establish several key initiatives to support services on the University’s main campus, as well as the satellite campuses at Wayne College and in Lakewood. Programming will consist of:

  • a blend of evidence-based curricula that emphasize positive student-to-student contact;
  • screenings and referrals provided by clinical interns;
  • expansion of recovery allied student organizations; and
  • improved health seeking via targeted marketing, stigma reduction, and peer ally referrals.

Determining gaps, training students and staff

Funding provided by the grant will help Ellis and his team initiate a comprehensive survey to determine programmatic gaps and underutilized programs.

Additionally, two UA employees are intended to be trained on Mental Health First Aid, a program that teaches skills to respond to the signs of mental illness and substance use. These employees will train existing and new student-peer educators to serve as resources for their fellow students who might be struggling. Training may also be extended to faculty so as to better identify students in their classes who might be experiencing mental health issues. On-campus student field placements (internships) will also be created to assist in brief screening and referral processes for students who may be at risk.

“If college students and youth have a problem with mental illness, the first people they go to aren’t adults or professionals - they go to their friends.” said Ellis. “Often times, students don’t know how to respond or what resources to use when their friends are experiencing issues. This indicates a need to train students how to better respond to these needs.”

John Ellis professor in UA's School of Social Work, is project manager of the grant.

John Ellis facilitates a discussion with the Garrett Lee Smith Campus Suicide Prevention Grant Data Committee on rolling out the campus wide National College Health Assessment survey. Ellis, professor of instruction and addiction curriculum coordinator in UA’s School of Social Work, is project manager of the grant, which was awarded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to the School of Social Work.

Social norming campaign, peer-to-peer services are key

A campus social norming campaign and peer-to-peer services, which are already in place and growing, will also be supported by the grant. UA currently has a student-run Collegiate Recovery Community, also known as Roos in Recovery, with 15 active members. They have already established a weekly student-centric recovery support group on campus. From this group, Ellis would like to expand membership and also create a recovery speakers bureau to be available to visit classes on campus and at community events to share their experiences about the road to recovery. This storytelling of people who searched for help and are recovering can aid in reducing the stigma often associated with mental health issues and seeking resources.

“A lot of people don’t seek services because they think it’s abnormal,” said Ellis. “The fact is, being depressed and having anxiety are pretty normal things. There are solutions for them as evidenced by the number of our students already in recovery. That’s a good thing.”

Keeping it going with programs proven to help

Ellis notes that the programs and initiatives funded by the grant should be self-sustaining after three years. Field placements will continue, employees trained in Mental Health First Aid and BACCHUS (Peer Educator Training) will continue training networks of students, and community relationships such as the recently launched Addictions Task Force will be maintained.

“The goal is to improve health seeking behavior amongst our students, reduce stigma, have UA be known as a welcome place for students in recovery, and to address our campus needs in a scientific-data informed way,” Ellis said. “These students are in our care for a couple years; we hope to foster their growth in academics, career pursuits, and positive mental health.”

Ellis, a licensed social worker and chemical dependency counselor, has experience on both ends of the recovery spectrum, having worked in the addiction field for 30 years prior to coming to UA. He’s also 35-years sober from alcoholism and drug addiction.

“A few years ago, I began to share with students that I’m a recovering alcoholic and addict,” said Ellis. “Since then, I’ve had at least one student in every single course I’ve instructed approach me and share they are in recovery, too. A lot of people in recovery return to school, and a large proportion of them bend toward the helping professions. They know they are welcome here. Their academic success, combined with their openness in discussing recovery, proves a positive example to their classmates.”

Media contact: Alex Knisely, 330-972-6477 or