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Mitzi Kane, Point Person

One job: For troubled students, the contact for help

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Mitzi Kane, behavioral services coordinator at Student Health Services, advises those who work closely with students how to recognize signs of severe depression. Photo by Vernon Doucette

Mitzi Kane’s busy days unfold to the soundtrack of an all-country station playing softly on a portable radio. The music, easygoing and upbeat, matches her disposition, which is suited to her job as behavioral services coordinator at BU Student Health Services (SHS).

With rosy features framed by auburn curls, Kane (CGS’83, MET’08) is often referred to as “the face of behavioral medicine.” On the job for 10 years, she greets, assists, and if necessary, reassures or subdues student walk-ins who arrive in a state of anguish, panic, or profound sadness. Positioned in a quiet corridor leading from the cough-permeated waiting room at SHS, her desk is the point of entry for a service that has saved lives. The clinic’s phone number is on the back of every BU ID card, its presence well known, but “getting to the first appointment is the hardest part,” Kane says.

This morning she is on the phone with the Boston Police after receiving a call from a student fearful because her roommate, also a BU student, is threatening to kill herself. They live off campus, out of the jurisdiction of the BU Police. But the embrace of Kane and the behavioral medicine staff (including an in-house psychiatrist) reaches to wherever BU students are in psychological turmoil. As she makes and fields calls to and from the student’s friend, the Boston Police, and the dean of the woman’s college, Kane’s tone is persistent, unflappable, and warm.

Kane advises those who work closely with students how to recognize signs of severe depression, such as absence from class and social events, deteriorating work quality, and bad hygiene. RAs and supervisors are taught to pay extra attention when a student is going through a breakup. (Although the University won’t provide numbers for campus suicides, suicide is second only to accidents as a cause of death among college students nationwide.) Kane also helps teach deans, coaches, and RAs to spot likely drug or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, and anxiety. A lot of her job is informed improvisation. She fields as many as 100 calls a day.

There is little about BU that Kane doesn’t know, and her background goes deeper than her work. Her three sisters are BU graduates. Her mother, a nurse practitioner, has worked down the hall at Student Health Services for 30 years. Kane’s 19-year-old daughter is a sophomore at BU — her younger daughter, 11, isn’t going to worry about college for a while.

“That’s my son,” says Kane, gesturing to her computer’s desktop photo of a handsome man in desert camouflage. Sean, 22, is in the second year of a tour on a U.S. Navy vessel off the coast of Africa, location classified. “Sean said, ‘Don’t show this picture to anyone,’” Kane recalls. “So I said, ‘OK, I’m just going to download it as my desktop.’”

Despite the security breach, student secrets are safe with Kane; her professionalism prevents her from sharing even innocuous anecdotes. Her commitment to confidentially also puts her in the odd position of having to run interference between students and parents. She will offer parents an ear, a shoulder if necessary. But she knows the medical staff can’t do their best if students can’t trust them.

“We have to remind ourselves,” she says, not flinching at the irony, “that these kids are adults.” She may call students “hon,” radiating a maternal warmth, but she doesn’t patronize. Nor does she judge: if students cancel appointments repeatedly or don’t bother to show up, that’s their choice.

“We get a lot of calls from scared parents,” says Kane, “especially with suicidal students. These things happen on the average of once a month. Some troubled kids start to feel a lot better, but their parents never stop worrying.”

Instructors contact her, too. “They’ll call if they read a revealing or particularly disturbing student paper” — for example, a student may write about a history of sexual abuse. A legacy of campus rampages, like the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings that left 33 dead, is that students who write graphically about violence or show intent to harm people will raise red flags. “In that case, we work on getting the student in with the help of academic advisors,” she says.

If professors reporting on students seems distasteful, Kane believes there is no alternative. “Our job is to make sure the students are safe,” she says. “We’re here to help them adjust and have successful academic careers and social lives.

“Suddenly they have access to as much alcohol, drugs, and sex as they want,” she continues. “And they make bad choices.” Most of the students in crisis are either freshmen, frightened and pressured by college life, or seniors, terrified and anxious about moving beyond it.

Another tragic reality is that college students predisposed to schizophrenia or psychotic breaks will begin to exhibit symptoms at this age. In these cases, Kane works with the triage physician. “There’s always someone here,” she says. A student who calls at 3 a.m. will reach a real person.

Kane’s workday officially ends at 4:30 p.m., but she’ll stay on if there’s an incident. She is on the phone constantly, handling student referrals for long-term care, new appointments, cancellations, and the inevitable daily emergency.

Although traffic to the office is steady, the academic year has its ebbs and flows. “The first week in September we get kids who are homesick,” she says. She is heartened that young women are increasingly comfortable seeking help. With males, there is still a stigma against reaching out, although she finds that’s changing gradually. Students at higher risk include athletes, gay, lesbian, and transgender students, and international students, whose support system might be on another continent. “We saw a lot of international students over Thanksgiving,” she adds.

“To say that Mitzi Kane is one of a kind is an understatement,” says Kane’s boss, Margaret Ross, a psychiatrist and director of behavioral medicine. “She looks out for everyone, manages a million things at once, and doesn’t stop smiling. I thank my lucky stars every day that Mitzi is here with us, the voice and face of behavioral medicine.”

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

6 Comments

6 Comments on Mitzi Kane, Point Person

  • Anonymous on 02.10.2010 at 8:06 am

    I concur…she is WONDERFUL!! Great article!!! BU is lucky to have Mitzi!

  • Anonymous on 02.10.2010 at 9:35 am

    Mitzi Kane

    A true American Hero

  • Anonymous on 02.10.2010 at 2:06 pm

    Mitzi is one of the most knowledgeable and genuine people on campus. I have had the pleasure of interacting with her both as an RA and as a patient, in both cases she has been warm and helpful. I can always feel confident as an RA referring my residents to Mitzi. Thanks for everything you do on campus!

  • Masters in Healthcare Comm. Student on 02.10.2010 at 3:23 pm

    Clone Mitzi!

    BU is already blessed with superb ethical resources for people in crisis. As a grad student in the new Masters in Healthcare Communication Program that is establishing benchmarks for an entirely new area, I wonder if there could be a place for social networking in the crisis outreach program.

    Many of us today are familiar and even sometimes more comfortable with modalities like IMs, Tweets, Facebook to express our thoughts and feelings. This would represent a paradigm shift from a passive system “waiting for a crisis to happen” to a proactive resource that could prevent the deadly guilt, shame and sense of failure that keeps troubled people waiting until the crisis has reached the danger level.

    We probably can’t clone Mitzi, but we could definitely make her work less hectic if the BU community had open access to a confidential chat function embedded in the BU Web access for students and faculty. Rather than expand costly professional services, using trained chat monitors to establish instant communication and field crisis requests to the most helpful resource would provide a seamless 24/7/365 presence so that no member of the BU community would ever be completely alone anymore.

  • Anonymous on 02.10.2010 at 8:45 pm

    MITZI KANE

    Mitzi is the coolest lady ever. I happen to live with her daughter and I want to be in their family very badly.

  • Anonymous on 02.10.2010 at 9:46 pm

    Mitzi Kane

    From a past parent: Thanks so much, Mitzi, for your kindness to my daughter when she really needed it.

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