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Wake Forest Takes Several Steps to Address Mental Health Issues for Students, Staff

October 2021
wake forest wellbeing center
Note: This article highlights the experiences of one United Educators (UE) member and doesn’t represent UE risk management or legal advice.

Focusing on mental health has become increasingly important in higher education, where more and more students have reported that anxiety and/or depression affect their academic work. Suicide is among the leading causes of death for college students, and 8% of full-time college students had suicidal thoughts and/or seriously considered suicide, according to a national study. In addition, many higher ed leaders are concerned about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on student mental health.

For years, Wake Forest University has looked holistically at well-being. It strives to develop a culture that lets students, faculty, and staff feel comfortable addressing their mental health issues and overall well-being.

Making data-informed strategic decisions is a core value for the university. That’s why Wake participated in the Healthy Minds Study in 2018. Wake’s aggregate scores in generalized anxiety, major depression, and depression overall “were significantly lower than the entire population of students in the study as well as those students from our peer comparison schools,” says Dr. James Raper, Assistant Vice President for Health & Wellbeing at Wake. “While there are always more gains to make in the area of mental health and community well-being, this data provides some additional indication that we are making important strides and impacting our community in positive ways.”

The study’s anxiety screening tool, for example, showed 6% of Wake’s respondents had symptoms consistent with a general anxiety diagnosis. By comparison, 9% of Wake’s peer comparison schools’ respondents had symptoms while 31% of the entire study’s population had symptoms.

At Wake, Campus Life leaders have been intentional regarding allocating resources to meet demonstrated need. For example, its counseling center has a ratio of mental health providers to students of about one per 700 students. By comparison the guideline ratio for counseling centers in higher ed is about one per 1,500, Raper says.

But beyond providing mental health support resources for those that seek it, Wake contends the responsibility for student mental health needs to be shared by the entire campus community. “The responsibility for mental health is for all of us,” Raper says. “The open question is: ‘How can you engage in supporting mental health of one another?’ That’s things like bystander intervention, it’s things like suicide intervention. It’s creating a culture on campus where we know we can say to someone about whom we’re concerned: ‘When’s the last time you thought about killing yourself?’ and know that it’s OK ─ even beneficial ─ to do that. Research demonstrates asking someone about their thoughts of suicide actually decreases their suicide risk. So that’s just another example of our work to create a culture where we can see opportunities for both microinterventions and macrointerventions.”

Wake’s overall efforts are part of Thrive, the university’s comprehensive, campus-wide well-being initiative. The Office of Wellbeing attempts to make well-being a part of every experience in the lives of Wake students, faculty, and staff. This includes a variety of services, programs, and initiatives that include well-being coaching, resilience, movement, sleep, and addiction recovery.


Well-Being Is Bigger Than Mental Health

When it comes to looking at health holistically at Wake, mental health is considered one of eight dimensions for well-being. These include emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual well-being.

While the Office of Wellbeing and the larger Health & Wellbeing Team that Raper leads spearheads Thrive, the initiative seeks to engage all parts of campus.

The campus community receives a wide spectrum of programming including offerings on meal preparation, career preparation, financial literacy and planning, and mindful photography. The Office of the Chaplain leads MindfulWake, a popular initiative that helps students and employees learn how to stay grounded and connected to their present selves – a key tool in developing resilience.

Bolster Your Overall Wellness Efforts

Based on Raper’s experiences, he recommends institutions consider these additional strategies when working on improving campus well-being:

Understand Your Culture

Carefully examine your community members’ needs and work to address those needs, using qualitative and quantitative data when it’s available. Not everything that works at Wake will work elsewhere.

Make Well-being Accessible for All

Traditionally, many institutions working on well-being focus activities and engagement on their dominant population (for example, white undergraduates).

Examine biases your institution may have. Avoid unintentionally crafting programming in ways that create barriers to traditionally underserved populations. Well-being should be a right, not a privilege.

Constantly identify – and break down – barriers to accessing well-being initiatives.

Ensure that, for example, students who are Black, Latinx, LGBTQ, and/or from other countries can see themselves in your programming. Create channels of communication so they can provide feedback for what well-being means to them. Adjust accordingly.

Don’t Only Work From the Bottom Up

Identify where your institution’s leaders buy in to this work.

“If you can’t get your Board of Trustees to understand, if you can’t get your President and their Cabinet to understand and engage in at least in some of it, it’s going to be incredibly difficult and frustrating,” Raper says. “We are fortunate to have leadership buy-in from the very beginning, and it’s been clear how well-being services, programming, and initiatives impact college student retention, and help develop the life skills critical for the future leaders we produce."

You don’t have to do all the dimensions at once, though. Find a dimension or two where you have partners and champions. Start there to begin developing additional momentum.

Match Talent to the Task

Putting appropriate staff in place – and in the right roles – to address mental health and well-being is a key component.

Wake is working to expand its Office of Wellbeing, which serves as the university’s office for health promotion and public health expertise. It has employees there who serve as preventionists. As colleges and universities work to balance response with a more “upstream” prevention approach, there are indications that what Wake is doing is an emerging trend at other institutions, Raper says.

“I want to hire my therapists because they’re great therapists and have them use their expertise to do therapy and mental health outreach,” he says. “Let’s not hire therapists and then pay them to spend time figuring out how to do prevention work – because most have never been trained in it, and it takes time away from seeing counseling clients."

Note: Allocating resources for prevention may represent somewhat of a philosophical shift for some institutions. By traditional definitions, successful prevention work highlights what hasn’t happened, which can be a hard thing for institutions to continue to fund. In addition, development of good outcome data – which is always crucial – often takes many months or even years. But Raper believes it helps tell the story of why public health, health promotion, and prevention approaches in collegiate communities is so critical.

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