Before COVID-19 gripped the world, you were probably unfamiliar with the term “social distancing.” The practice of keeping physical distance from others is key in the fight against COVID-19, but it’s also a challenge to avoiding social isolation and its potential emotional toll.
"For me to be stuck in the house every single day for months was driving me insane," says senior Precious Onyegbule. "You can text your friends, FaceTime them all you want, but not being able to see them and have fun with them, that was draining me personally.”
Breanna Traynor, assistant director of mental health outreach, has heard this concern repeatedly.
“Students are feeling isolated. The lack of socialization and connection seems to be one of the hardest issues that students are experiencing,” she says.
A December 2020 survey by New America and Third Way found 79% of students have concerns about their mental health, an increase from 73% in August. This has continued to serve as a theme throughout the pandemic on college campuses—and their virtual workspaces.
“I would imagine that just about everyone has experienced an increase in stress during this pandemic. The fear and anxiety that comes along with it can be overwhelming,” says Dr. Brian Fuller, director of Counseling Services. “This has had an impact on sleep patterns, appetite and focus at times.”
Recognizing the need for more resources for students to thrive, the University has launched several initiatives focused on student mental health since the pandemic began, including two well-being platforms—WellTrack and YOU at Western. These new initiatives paired with existing programs are aimed at providing a mental and emotional check-in for students and connecting them with campus resources to ease the stressors of life during distance education and beyond.
“We’re asking students not to try to go it alone; we would love to come alongside and assist,” says Dr. Diane Anderson, vice president for student affairs. “We are committed to putting well-being front and center at Western.”
Launched in fall 2020, WellTrack is a self-help application available to students, faculty and staff. The secure and confidential platform offers a number of tools and resources aimed at managing mental health.
WellTrack supports the University’s wellness mission by allowing users to track their mood over time, identify stressors, intentionally schedule self-care activities and learn about strategies to manage feelings of depression, anxiety and stress. They can do this through the five-minute, evidence-based Wellness Assessment, which Traynor says was designed by psychologists so students can gauge where they are at with their mental health.
“I think there’s a lot of students, people in general, who wonder, ‘Am I struggling with depression? Would my experience be considered clinical depression? Am I at high risk?’ I think a lot of students wonder but don’t go forward with setting up an appointment or talking to a counselor,” Traynor says.
The Wellness Assessment can show students a realistic picture of their levels of anxiety, depression or stress. If needed, the app will provide information to connect with a counselor.
“I think we’re realizing more and more that we have to do prevention work (for our mental health). We hope that through this app, students can start thinking that way as well,” Traynor says.
YOU at Western
At Western, success comes in all forms: academic, career, well-being and purpose. The University is providing students the tools they need to achieve their dreams, traditional or not. Enter: YOU at Western.
The holistic well-being platform extends beyond the boundaries of a traditional wellness tool. It not only focuses on a user’s mental and physical health but anything related to the college experience. Launched in November 2020, YOU at Western can be accessed anywhere students need it—on their laptop, tablet or smartphone.
“I think now we have a generation of students where we have to really meet them where they’re at,” Traynor says.
Users can fill out “Reality Checks” to discover their goals and areas for growth. Then the platform makes suggestions to improve quality of life and opportunities for success on their terms. It moves with students throughout their experience, offering advice and guidance through campus resources and lifestyle changes.
The comprehensive nature of YOU at Western emphasizes the importance of looking at the college experience as more than just academics. In order for students to be successful and have meaningful lives, they need the tools to manage all aspects of their lives.
"We think about college being an opportunity for students to find their purpose. When you find that career, that passion, that discipline that gets you excited, it makes a huge difference in your motivation,” says Anderson. “To have a tool that is not only focused on career but also on making sure that you leave (Western) whole and you understand how to keep yourself whole as you face life’s adversities along the way, I think, is huge.”
Mental Health First Aid and Western CARES
When you notice someone is struggling mentally, emotionally or physically, it can be difficult to know how to help. Learning how to respond is the focus of two training programs open to the campus community this academic year.
The University partnered with Integrated Services of Kalamazoo (ISK) to provide Mental Health First Aid for Higher Education. With costs covered by a grant, the all-day virtual training for students, faculty and staff covers how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance abuse.
Another source for guidance is the Western CARES training, which is specifically for University faculty, staff and graduate assistants. Known as “gatekeeper training” for those on the front line, the program focuses on how to recognize when a student is struggling and how to respond and share resources.
Traynor says it’s important that any employee, regardless of job title, knows how to connect students with resources because they’re often the ones to witness warning signs. It’s a situation she believes many faculty wanted to prepare for amid distance education.
“Especially this semester, I’ve had more faculty than ever register for these trainings,” she says. “I think they’re recognizing how much students are struggling this year. They need the tools to know, ‘How do I help a student, especially when it’s a virtual course?’”
Traynor says she wants employees to know they aren’t alone. There are resources available to help prepare them for responding to student needs, because they are often the first to witness the warning signs.
“They are the eyes and ears of our students. They are the ones interacting with them,” she says. “They’re on this journey with us to support students.”
Western is completing the final steps to become an official JED Campus Alumni. The University is now one of more than 350 campuses across the country working to increase student resilience and decrease the two leading causes of death among young adults: suicide and accidents, including those caused by prescription drug overdoses or alcohol poisoning.
The partnership began in 2018 with a Healthy Minds Study, which was a baseline survey to assess available services. Students were asked to share their attitudes, behaviors and awareness of mental health issues. As the partnership concludes, the second survey will determine the progress the University has made since that initial poll.
“It will also give us a lot of really good insight into how our students are doing with their mental health, especially mid-pandemic,” Traynor says.
A 19-member JED Campus team, made up of representatives from across campus, has been working to increase awareness and use of campus services as well as create a more supportive campus climate, helping students develop grit and resilience.
Western was also one of just 18 colleges and universities nationwide that participated in the Equity in Mental Health Framework (EMHF) pilot project to implement additional wellness services for students of color. This mission was supported through The Steve Fund, which is a national organization supporting the mental and emotional well-being of young people of color.
Some initiatives from these national partnerships include creating a plan for support services following a traumatic event on campus; Mental Health Awareness Week in fall 2020; the Mental Health Summit for faculty and staff in February 2020; the creation of Traynor’s position in student affairs; launching a campus climate survey; beginning an online diversity and inclusion training; and other initiatives still in progress.
“I believe that WMU’s investment in promoting positive mental health and wellness on our campus is growing in its momentum,” says Dr. Gary Bischof, the University’s initial point person for the JED Campus initiative and professor and coordinator of the Marriage, Couple and Family Counseling Program. “I think we have done a good job increasing awareness ... though we still have much work to do.”
- WMU rolls out personalized well-being platform to help students harness their power to thrive, succeed and matter
- Impacts of COVID-19 and social isolation on mental health explored in WMU study
- Student group focuses on breaking the stigma surrounding mental health
- Mental Health Week at WMU aims to raise awareness, offer resources
- WellTrack app gives WMU community tools to focus on mental health
- Counseling Services helping students cope with pandemic-related anxiety, stress