Arcadia Magazine Winter 2023: Taking Hold of the Social Fabric: Is There a Friendship Doctor in the House?

By Kim Dean, Ph.D., NCSP | January 20, 2023

When my youngest son was in Kindergarten, I was invited to be a guest reader in his classroom. He introduced me as “Dr. Dean, at work.” I admit to enjoying the slight boost of serotonin when one of the girls said, “Wow, a girl doctor!” This bump was quickly followed by deflation when my son responded, with his hand cupped to his mouth in a dramatic stage whisper, “Well…she’s a ‘friendship doctor’, she can’t help you if you’re sick or give shots or anything.” Taking my own advice to focus on the positive, I thought, “Well, I must be living my mission if this 5-year-old defines me as a ‘friendship doctor.’” 

My first professional passion was coaching struggling children and families in developing social-emotional competencies. It brought me tremendous joy to see kids employ new coping tools in navigating challenging situations. Supporting parents, teachers, and even entire school districts as they embraced their role in encouraging students’ development of pro-social, problem-solving, and coping skills has been at the core of my clinical practice and my scholarship in Arcadia’s School of Education.   

I am tremendously honored to have been awarded the Rosemary and Walter Blankley Endowed Chair in Education for 2022-2025. This opportunity brings my career full circle, as it pulls together a lifetime of reflection on the critical importance and potential of a system-wide focus on emotional wellness, social connection, and mental health literacy. After years of supporting the adoption of proactive and universal Social Emotional Learning (SEL) curricula in PreK-12 settings, I now turn to higher education to reimagine the way we engage our students at this developmental stage in this extraordinary, post-pandemic moment. 

Arcadia’s faculty and staff have been remarkably creative in their focus on student wellbeing, and there is consensus that there is no “return to normal” as we face the twin crises in mental health and loneliness that were emerging before the lockdown revealed the extent of this tear in our social fabric. Research confirms that the loneliness epidemic persists and social connection is a powerful buffer against stress, depression, and anxiety. It is time to expand the ongoing efforts of universities to build strong “crash landing pads” for college students in crisis and look creatively at integrating the skills and strategies related to mental wellness and meaningful social connection into our campus culture.

Arcadia became a Jed Foundation campus* this fall, and I am excited to collaborate on systemic capacity building in support of the social-emotional wellness and resiliency of all students on Arcadia’s campus. My hope is to use resources from the Blankley Endowed Chair to research preventative and curricular approaches used to effectively address SEL at other institutions, assess the various “touch-points” where Arcadia students have access to resilience and social connection programming and curricula, and pilot promising practices that leverage existing strengths of the Arcadia experience. Data collected on Arcadia’s campus in the spring of 2022 aligns with the National College Health Assessment data documenting that more than one-third of students’ academics were negatively impacted by anxiety or stress. More than half of students surveyed cited social issues as a concern. This chairship offers me a chance to more deeply explore social emotional learning and strategies for optimizing social connection as a tool for prevention and intervention for our community members who are struggling. And we are all struggling. 

So, is there a friendship doctor in the house? 

Dr. Kim Dean is the 2022-2025 Rosemary and Walter Blankley Endowed Chair in Education, associate professor of Education, and director of Equity, Inclusion & Opportunity in Special Education

*The Jed Foundation (JED) is the nation’s leading organization dedicated to young adult mental health.