Mental health has been a major discussion point at JMU since the two on-campus suicides in early 2022. Since then, JMU has increased its mental health resources by creating more free counseling visits for students and introducing TimelyCare, a virtual counseling platform.
In noticing a lack of student-led resources, though, junior history major Rilie Bass, junior psychology major Kevin Cottrell and junior accounting major Connor Basset created Dukes Support Network (DSN), a peer-to-peer mental health support group.
Cottrell, executive director of the club, said DSN has been in the works since last summer and launched this semester. He said the group fulfills a need at JMU, but he, Bass and Basset want to continue the group because it’s something they wish they had as freshmen.
Cottrell, Bass and Basset came into college in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, which they said was difficult for them mentally. While JMU does have the Counseling Center, they said they wish there had been a space as freshmen to talk with other students about what they were feeling, which is why they’re so passionate about DSN.
“What’s motivating a lot of us to push forward with this club is because we want to give that opportunity of being in a small group,” Cottrell said. “We hope that we’re able to give the experience of being seen and heard to incoming students.”
Cottrell said DSN is a space for students to receive support but it isn’t a replacement for counseling or therapy. He said people should still use the resources available to them on campus, like individual and group counseling, self care spaces such as the Serenity Center and mental health workshops.
While he’s never had experiences with JMU’s Counseling Center, Cottrell said he believes the Center’s a great on-campus resource and, with the few times he’s talked with the faculty, he’s been “blown away” with the professionalism and the dedication they have.
“The space they’ve created in terms of empathy and compassion is really just amazing,” Cottrell said. “I honestly don’t think they get enough credit for how hard they work to constantly improve mental health services.”
What makes DSN different from other on-campus mental health-related organizations is the fact that it’s more of a completely student-led support group. DSN states on its Instagram that each small group leader has received training in suicide prevention, active listening, diversity, equity and inclusion and campus resources such as the Counseling Center.
Currently, DSN has regular support group meetings but hopes to expand in the future, with more meetings and more events on campus that raise awareness to mental health as well as the group itself.
Bass and Basset are both small group leaders and said they’ve been surprised by the response from members and how they've been willing to share their own mental health experiences. Bass said the key to being a support leader is to have no expectations because that’s not how you grow or progress.
“As facilitators, I know we left having a better day,” Bass said, “but we want everyone to leave our meetings in a better space than they came in.”
While DSN is a relatively new club, there’s currently about 30 students involved with it. Basset said the purpose of the group is to create a community for students. He said he wants this space to be a place for students to find new friends and connections they feel comfortable discussing their experiences with.
The community that DSN has created allows students to learn about themselves and their peers, Basset said. He hopes, as the group progresses and grows, more people will join and become more and more comfortable to share stories.
“We’ve already had some people in small groups be super open,” Basset said. “I think when you have that, it allows the whole group to feel like they can be vulnerable as well.”
Reagan Polarek, 2026 student body president, was endorsed by the club because Cottrell said she’s one of the most conscientious students he’s met and he greatly values the support she’s shown for DSN — though Polarek isn’t currently involved with it. She said she’s “honored” to be part of the Student Government Association (SGA) and is looking forward to keeping mental health awareness as one of her main initiatives.
“I ran so that every JMU student would feel safe, secure and supported,” Polarek said about being class president. “This includes making sure that JMU students feel like they belong. It meant so much that DSN endorsed me. I’m so glad I get to work with them for another year and can’t wait to see what we can accomplish together.”
Polarek has used resources such as the Counseling Center and TimelyCare and said they’ve been helpful for her. While these resources are a great start, she said there’s always room for improvement, and that DSN fills a major need within the JMU community.
“I think it is a unique struggle for a lot of college students, who are transitioning into new parts of life,” Polarek said. “As someone who has their own struggles with mental health, it helps to know I’m not alone. I think that DSN does a phenomenal job at making people feel connected to a community of people that are going through some of the same things.”
Cottrell said another way DSN is unique compared to other student organizations is that it serves as a proactive resource. Since there’s a different level of interaction when talking with someone’s peers, Cottrell said DSN serves as a space for students to feel heard and get mental health support before they ever get to the place of contemplating harming themselves or ending their lives.
“We see this as a proactive measure on campus to try and help students before they get to a point where they may find themselves in a crisis,” Cottrell said. “I hope this becomes a space where we can look upstream and prevent those cases from happening.”