Leadership Convening on Student Behavioral Health

Dana Humphrey / April 9, 2020

On March 2nd and 3rd, student and academic affairs professionals, experts, and researchers from around the country gathered at Georgetown University for the second in a two-part convening series focused on college student behavioral health and wellness. The gathering of administrative leaders from these two areas was an attempt to bring the “two sides of the house” together towards common student wellness goals.

The meeting followed a September forum where college and university presidents met to build a deeper understanding of the role higher education plays in maintaining student well-being. The Higher Education Leadership Convening on College Student Behavioral Health brought leadership teams from many of the same institutions present in September to find institutional solutions to better students’ overall well-being and academic success.

The event began with a dinner on the 2nd, featuring a joint presentation by Alan Schlechter, MD, and Dan Lerner, MA, co-authors of U Thrive: How To Succeed In College (and Life) and co-teachers of the course “The Science of Happiness” at New York University. Part lecture/part standup, the presentation reflected the same humor and humility the pair brings to one of the most popular courses at NYU.

Georgetown President Jack DeGioia opened Tuesday’s events with a reminder of the distinctive responsibility of higher education in supporting the development and formation of young people.

“Our gathering today brings us together to respond to the question, how should those of us in higher learning and each of our individual roles as provosts, deans, as vice presidents, as heads of student and academic affairs, and as institutions, how should we understand our responsibilities in addressing the challenges of our young people in this moment?” he began.

Acknowledging the group of dedicated leaders, he said “We all seek to provide a context for our students to become their most authentic selves, to live in accord with their most deeply held values, to realize their full promise, to understand the depth and breadth of what they're capable of contributing to our world.” And with a nod towards the gravity of the task ahead, he closed, “It's urgent that we recommit ourselves to this distinctive responsibility.”

Zoe Ragouzeos, PhD, Executive Director of the Counseling and Wellness Services at New York University, and a Mary Christie Foundation board member, provided a bridge from the Presidents’ Convening in September and set the stage for the day’s discussion. Dr. Ragouzeos acknowledged that student health and wellbeing and student success are inextricably linked, saying “If our students are not well, physically and mentally, they cannot possibly progress or excel academically or even be retained in college at all.”

Building on President DeGioia’s remarks, Zoe asked how to define “flourishing,” how to achieve it for all students. “Who will help us to achieve student flourishing? Whose job is it to ensure that our students are happy and fulfilled? We established back in September that this work cannot possibly begin and end with the counseling centers,” she said, sparking what would become a major theme of the day: opening support communities to all campus partners – especially for the faculty. She asked, “How can we make it possible, and in fact, desirable, for the faculty to build a culture of wellness in their classrooms?” Concluding, she challenged the audience by saying that inaction is “no longer an option, and that creative solutions is our only frontier.”

Behavioral Health and Student Success
The first panel of the day, moderated by Georgetown Provost Robert Groves, PhD, focused on the connection between wellbeing and student success, and the work of building better outcomes for students. Participating in the panel were Amelia Arria, PhD, Professor of Behavioral and Community Health and Director of the Center on Young Adult Health and Development at the University of Maryland School of Public Health; Daniel Eisenberg, PhD, Professor and Director of the Healthy Minds Network at the University of Michigan School of Public Health; and Adanna J. Johnson, MA, PhD, Associate Vice President for Student Equity and Inclusion at Georgetown University.

In a brief presentation at the top of the panel, Dr. Eisenberg presented the Healthy Minds Network’s “economic case for investing in mental health,” which directly links mental health with student success, and demonstrates a return on investment for schools that invest in campus mental health services and programs. The Healthy Minds Survey data show that students with depression are about twice as likely to drop out of college. According to Dr. Eisenberg, “If we can reduce depression, then we can retain students, we can help them remain in college and that could translate to potential tuition revenue… as well as probably more importantly, economic productivity for the young people because they will have more years of college education.”

Eisenberg also provided recommendations for university leadership and administrators, arguing against putting more resources behind old approaches that don’t work. He called for investment into proactive integrated approaches that cut across campus settings, financial aid, academic services, and health services, citing curriculum-based approaches similar to the one presented the previous evening.

Dr. Arria stressed the importance of taking all dimensions of health and wellness into account, including psychiatric status, substance use and physical health, acknowledging that all of them need different levels and types of intervention. While some students will need help from the counseling center, Arria also touted the need to invest in wellbeing initiatives that can increase health literacy and give students a better understanding of the problems that they may be experiencing. For substance use prevention particularly, Dr. Arria explained the need to use both individual strategies such as improving access and availability of clinical monitoring and services, as well as environmental strategies to limit access and availability and refine and enforce our policies.

Much of Dr. Arria’s research has focused on the relationship between behavioral health and academic performance. Emphasizing that behavioral health is one of the critical elements to academic functioning, she acknowledged the common (but improving) division between academic and student affairs, calling it a “missed opportunity” to improve their common goal, student success. “It's all about promoting student success in the end,” she said. And “working together rather than in separate divisions.”

Dr. Adanna Johnson spoke to the effects that equity and inclusion issues can have on both mental well-being and student success, expressing concern for the student experience both inside and outside the classroom. “We know that the experiences that they have can be a detriment to or enhance their overall mental health and wellbeing,” she said. “So, when I think about students' success, I certainly consider their academic achievement and performance, but also their fulfillment and the sense of self efficacy that they have to engage in those pursuits.”

For this reason, Dr. Johnson promotes a “whole institution approach” to the work of equity and inclusion. Georgetown’s Office of Student Equity and Inclusion, under Dr. Johnson’s leadership, engages all aspects of the university. Their council on student equity and inclusion represents academic deans offices, student engagement, the academic research center, and all centers that support specific student populations, like the LGBTQ resource center.

In taking this approach, Dr. Johnson examines the structures and processes that shape student experience and wellbeing. She looks for barriers to success in places like admissions policies and advising practices across the institution. “What is the landscape of our institution?” she asks. “What do we do well? Where do we have gaps? What do our peer institutions do well? Where can we learn from them? And what are the best practices?”

The Practitioner’s Panel
In the second panel of the day, titled “Innovation in Practice,” administrators discussed their own approaches to student wellbeing. Moderated by Todd Olson, PhD, Vice President for Student Affairs at Georgetown University, the panel featured one administrative team from Rollins College, Leon Hayner, MEd, MBA, Associate Dean of Students and Susan Singer, PhD, Provost, as well as Brown University’s Director of Counseling & Psychological Services, Will Meek, PhD.

Dr. Olson opened by calling to mind some of the creative tensions involved in the pursuit of student well-being, including the focus on proactive versus preventative measures, the focus on change and growth for the individual versus the change and support of culture, and the reliance on tried and true, evidence-based methods versus trying bold, new experiments.

Dr. Meek’s widely praised changes at Brown’s counseling center exemplify how to use evidence and experimentation towards better outcomes. Looking for a creative solution to the problem of long wait times and other systemic problems within the counseling center, Dr. Meek started to experiment with different formats for treatment, creating what he calls the “flexible-care model.”

The model includes same-day access for an appointment, variable session lengths, and the removal of assessments at the beginning of appointments, in order to begin treatment right away. “We assess what the issue is and consider safety, of course,” he said. “But then we're really spending all the time focusing on what they want help with.” Despite leaning into experimental strategies, Dr. Meek said he relies on the “common factors,” or the core components of counseling that make treatment effective. “That's something I think about a lot,” he said, “making sure all of these common factors are still in place no matter what format we're working in.

Meek’s changes reduced wait times down to about two to three days and resulted in 90% of students remaining on campus for care. He noted that overall, it has “made a huge difference in the identity and the whole feeling of the center.”

Leon Hayner, from Rollins College, spoke to the importance of relationships, and specifically the mentoring relationships between faculty, staff, and students that he called “the foundation of the ethos at Rollins.” Hayner cited a Gallup-Purdue Index that measured higher education outcomes and showed the long-term impact of having mentors who believe in students and get them excited about learning.

In agreement was Dr. Susan Singer, his colleague, who cited the strong evidence for a sense of belonging on campus. Coming from an academic affairs perspective, she shed light on the significance of a “meaningful” education, which she said is particularly true for groups that are traditionally underrepresented in higher education.

Singer referenced a strong evidence base for providing an education that will move students towards a meaningful life in service of a community. Seeing an increased interest in social entrepreneurship in their business classes, Hayner says, “Students want to use their education, want to use their talents, their skills, their strengths, to go out and actually change the world.” Dr. Singer concluded the panel with a call to action for her colleagues in the room. “Don't accept the system as it is,” she said, “think about ways that you can move forward and the levers you can pull.”

One Caring Person
The luncheon speaker was Jared Fenton, founder of The Reflect Organization, a national mental wellness nonprofit that works with college students. Fenton underscored the reality of what many young people are facing today as they struggle with their mental health while pretending to be okay, worried the world will see through the perfect, curated image of themselves.

Fenton, a recent college graduate himself, started the Reflect Organization to provide a space for students to find genuine connection and engage in “allied, authentic, self-loving conversations.” Fenton promoted the idea that every college student needs “one caring person,” someone who is invested in their wellbeing and success. This idea is adapted from a study by Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child that shows that children who do well despite serious hardship have had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult. The idea clearly resonated with the panelists and audience, who returned to it throughout the afternoon.

Curriculum and Wellbeing
The last presentation of the day was a panel discussion focused on institutions taking new directions in the space of integrating academics and well-being, featuring Richard Miller, the President of Olin College of Engineering; Dr. James Hudziak, the Director of the University of Vermont’s Wellness Environment; and Laurie Santos, PhD, a Professor of Psychology at Yale University. The panel was moderated by Marjorie Malpiede, MPA, Executive Director of the Mary Christie Foundation.

Dr. Santos is the creator of Yale’s most popular class ever, “Psychology and the Good Life,” which she created after witnessing students struggle with stress, anxiety and depression as the Head of Silliman College, one of Yale’s residential colleges. Just under one in every four Yale students enrolled in that first class, which teaches students how to lead a happier and more satisfying life.

The frame of the class is to show students that often, their preconceived notions about what drives happiness are incorrect. “When you teach a class about the science of happiness, students walk in with strong intuitions from their culture, their background about the kinds of things that matter,” she says. “Many of those intuitions, at least according to the data, seem to be wrong. It doesn't seem to be money once you're beyond the poverty line. It doesn't seem to be material possessions.” To convince driven, high-achieving Yale students that good grades do not matter to their happiness, providing evidence is critical.

Dr. Hudziak is the founder and Director of UVM’s Wellness Environment, an incentive-based behavior change eco-system that motivates students to engage in healthier behavior. WE, which has its own dormitory, offers fitness classes and trainers, mindfulness mentors, a nutritionist, music lessons and mentoring. The students (and their parents) sign a contract promising not to have drugs or alcohol in the dorm. Students are required to take the course, “Healthy Brains Healthy Bodies,” which explores wellbeing from a neuroscience perspective.

According to Hudziak, “It's time for the world to rally around the point that brain health and building healthy brains during childhood and adolescence” is the path to overall health and wellbeing.

The lesson of the curriculum-based programs is that demand for them is extraordinarily high, and expanding them should be a priority, whether making them campus-wide, expanding to other schools, or putting them online to make them nationally available.

Dr. Miller described the institutional experiment that was – and is – Olin College of Engineering, an innovative model in engineering learning and education overall that makes purpose and wellbeing part of what you learn upon graduation. He said one of the challenges of this approach is to encourage faculty to educate more than students’ minds.

“It's not just about teaching their head,” he said, “it's about teaching their heart at the same time.” To do this, faculty must be willing to be vulnerable with their students. Dr. Santos agreed, urging the need for institutional support for faculty. She says this work requires an elimination of some of the “sacred cows” of higher education.

It was a theme which stitched together the entire convening: the responsibility for student success and wellbeing to be shared. Not only between the counseling center and student and academic affairs, but also among faculty, leadership, and students themselves. In his closing remarks, Dr. Miller encouraged his colleagues in the room to “reach across the aisle and shake hands with the folks” from different parts of the university to achieve this common goal.