New School of Health & Human Services at Keuka College

Kevin Frisch, Keuka College

Keuka College establishes a new school to meet today’s mental health and social justice needs.

The School of Health and Human Services at Keuka College brings new thinking and collaboration to programs ranging from Nursing to Social Work to Criminal Justice.

Posing in the School of Health and Human Services' newly renovated Center for Health Innovation are, from left, Division Chair of Social Work Dr. Jason McKinney, Division Chair of Nursing Dr. Beth Russo '98, Founding Dean of the School of Health and Human Services Dr. Chris Alterio, and Division Chair of Applied Health & Wellness Dr. Kristen Bacon.

KEUKA PARK — With physical and mental health needs spiking as the nation struggles to emerge from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Keuka College has launched an ambitious program that aims to educate students in fields that address pressing public health needs.

The new School of Health and Human Services at Keuka College will bring together academic programs focused on mental and physical health, social justice, and public safety – areas that are vital in responding to ongoing individual and societal challenges.

“It’s become increasingly apparent that professions touching on public health, personal wellness, and social well-being are not isolated disciplines, but interrelated services,” said College President Amy Storey. “Our School of Health and Human Services brings them together so students in all programs will benefit from the comprehensive and varied educational opportunities.”

That comprehensive strategy is needed as the nation confronts an unprecedented surge of mental health challenges:

• The number of adults experiencing depression has tripled over the course of the pandemic, according to a study conducted by the Boston University School of Public Health.

• The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported “considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19,” such as anxiety and suicidal ideation.

• Increases in drug and alcohol abuse, including a staggering 30% year-over-year increase in fatal drug overdoses nationwide in 2020.

Those challenges are reflected locally.

“It’s incredible, the number of people who are seeking assistance because of stress, anxiety, and adjustment disorders due to COVID-19,” said Keuka College Associate Professor of Social Work and Division Chair Dr. Jason McKinney, LCSW-R. He said the stressors come from all sides: financial, physical, emotional, and social. “All of these issues can lead to depression and anxiety.”

Working together

To address these issues, the College’s School of Health and Human Services brings together college programs in the divisions of Applied Health and Wellness, Social Work, and Nursing.

“It is not enough for healthcare professionals, administrators, human service workers, or any others to function independently,” said Dr. Christopher Alterio, who will lead the school as its founding dean. “Needs are best met when people work together. That’s what the School of Health and Human Services will embody.”

Dr. Alterio said coordinating programs and services allows the college to improve interdisciplinary cooperation, provide new opportunities for student training, and better prepare students as they graduate and move on to serve their communities – many of them right here in upstate New York.

The education is not only collaborative but, in keeping with Keuka College’s traditional commitment to experiential learning, hands-on.

“We are involving students directly in practice opportunities right on campus,” said Dr. Alterio, who also serves as Professor of Occupational Therapy and Director of Disability Services at the college. “We will integrate these efforts with the ongoing programming of the Health and Counseling Center and we will have broader community outreach so that we can extend our impact to our local and regional community.”

That impact is already being felt. With the need for social workers spiking amid the pandemic, Keuka College issued more bachelor’s degrees in Social Work than any other college or university in New York in 2019, and the second-most in the state in 2020.

Further bolstering the school’s focus on educating professionals to address the social challenges of today, the college’s Board of Trustees approved aligning the Criminology/Criminal Justice and Criminal Justice Systems programs with the School of Health and Human Services as part of the Division of Social Work.

“Criminology/Criminal Justice and Social Work are among Keuka College’s two most sought-after majors and there is immense opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration,” said President Storey. “This mission-focused realignment serves to bring the faculty and students in these programs physically and administratively closer together to inspire the collaboration necessary to better prepare graduates of each program to serve a changing world.”

New school, new home

Students in Keuka College's health-related programs have begun instruction this fall in the new Center for Health Innovation in Harrington Hall.

Instruction will take place in newly renovated facilities: The College’s recently completed Center for Health Innovation in Harrington Hall.

The first floor of Harrington has been designed as a simulated health system, including six distinct labs with additional space for instruction. The upper two floors serve as residential space for students majoring in health-related professions like Nursing, Occupational Therapy, and Social Work, creating a fully immersive living-learning environment. The renovations were funded entirely through private donations.

The new instructional space, which opened to students this fall, will help relieve a backlog of students hoping to earn degrees in health care while creating additional opportunities for students majoring in Social Work, Occupational Therapy, Community Health & Wellness, Health Sciences, and Criminal Justice.

According to Rochester-based community health planning institute Common Ground Health, the need for increased numbers of health, OT, and social work professionals is driven by the region’s aging population, recruitment and retention challenges in many local health care facilities, and – especially – poverty.

“When we look at the Finger Lakes, the most astonishing reality of our socio-economics is how wide the swath of poverty is,” Common Ground Health CEO Wade Norwood, who is also a member of the New York State Board of Regents, told the College’s Board of Trustees earlier this year. 

And poverty is a leading indicator of poor health outcomes, particularly among older populations. Or, as Norwood says bluntly, “Poverty cuts lives short across the region.”

So, Keuka College’s intention to build on its history of creating health care professionals is not only timely, he says, it’s necessary.

“Even though I date back to the days of (Keuka College’s President from 1983-96) Dr. (Arthur F.) Kirk, I continue to associate Keuka College with nursing and with health care,” says Norwood. “Your reputation of creating health care professionals in the Finger Lakes that stay in the Finger Lakes or in New York is something that has an incredible return on investment.”

That return on investment can’t come quickly enough for the school’s Founding Dean.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to organize, develop, and promote our programs in new and creative ways – and to serve our students and to watch them go on to make a real difference in people’s lives," said Dr. Alterio. "There is no greater outcome that any educator could possibly wish for, and it all just happens to align perfectly with the mission and vision of our wonderful College.”