Making Wellness a Campus-Wide Effort

Group of young students giving high fives.


As we head into 2022, what are some of the best ways for campuses to promote wellness and reach students? Diana Cusumano, director of JED Campus and Wellness Initiatives at the Jed Foundation, tells us. Students must be involved in planning, helping, and spreading the word about our campus wellness events.

Kelly Cherwin, HigherEdJobs: What are some of the best ways to reach students these days when it comes to promoting wellness? For instance, I have seen you use YouTube as a platform to share wellness practices. Should campuses be doing more to promote wellness via social media or other communication tools?

Diana Cusumano, JED Foundation: The best way for campuses to promote wellness and reach students is to involve students in the work. This looks like having students helping with the ideas of wellness events, planning them and helping to implement them, and getting the word out to their peers. Oftentimes staff may have a good idea of ​​a certain program or workshop, but it may not be relevant to what the students need at that moment.

It’s also super important to stay up to date on the current trends for college students, and the current events in your area, as well as the rest of the world.

Cherwin: Campus environments can be drastically different, from small campuses in small towns, to even smaller campuses in rural settings, to big bustling urban campuses. How does wellness differ from institution to institution?

Cusumano: Wellness at its core is about taking care of oneself and others. The basic premise of that idea doesn’t change because of location. What does change is the amount of wellness offerings available to the community. The biggest difference between rural and urban settings is that in urban settings there tends to be a lot of community offerings for wellness. Students who attend urban based universities are able to go off campus to find resources if their campus doesn’t provide it. In rural settings it is much more difficult to find off campus resources if one’s university doesn’t provide them.

One silver lining of the pandemic has been the growth of using apps and online services for wellness offerings. This is one way to help those students who may be living in a rural setting access programs they may never have prior to this growth.

Cherwin: The words “mental health” are sometimes associated with a negative stigma in our society which could result in students not wanting to seek help. A recent article noted that “up to 75% of struggling students are reluctant to seek help. This increases the risk of harmful outcomes, such as dropping out of college, poor academic performance, suicide and substance abuse.” What can college personnel do to help break down this stigma and hopefully encourage students to reach out?

Cusumano: Creating a culture of care on campus needs to be a campus-wide priority and effort. This work can’t just fall on counseling and health services. One of the key ways to break down the stigma is to make sure that the entire campus community encourages help-seeking behaviors in their students. Ways to do this include:

  1. Making sure staff and faculty know what the campus resources are, where things are located, and are trained in how to help students if they are having trouble. This type of mental health training isn’t just to identify students who may be in need of help, but it’s also to learn how to reach out and have a conversation with that student to see what is going on and then refer as appropriate, if need be, to the right professional that can help.
  2. Staff and faculty can also help by modeling for students, asking for help or talking about past struggles they have overcome themselves. An example I saw a school do in this area, that I loved, was called ‘Failure Fridays.’ Every Friday a different faculty or staff member would be shared on social media discussing a moment in their past that was really hard and how they overcame it.
  3. Running campaigns on campus and on social media normalizing help-seeking and making sure students know it’s OK not to be OK and to talk about it. The Jed Foundation has a partnership campaign called ‘Seize the Awkward’ that helps to break the stigma of mental health and encourages people to seize that awkward moment that can happen by asking someone if they are OK. You can check out the free resources and videos of Seize The Awkward here.
  4. Another idea is to provide programs, workshops, or forums where students can gather to learn about mental health and talk about it in a safe space with other students and the right professional staff. Some schools do this by having an expert come in to talk about a topic, having students have open mic nights to share their feelings, or running mental health/wellness fairs on campus. JED recently worked with MTV to put out a documentary called Each and Every Day to normalize mental health issues that schools can use to help guide this conversation.
  5. Provide training for students on how to help their friends. Most often students will go to their peers first in a time of need. Making sure students are educated in mental health training and what the campus resources are is key to help-seeking on campus. The Jed Foundation does offer a ‘You Can Help’ training series that college professionals can look into here. JED also provides this free College Student Mental Health Action Kit that college professionals can make sure students are aware of and that they can utilize it.
  6. You can find out much more about JED and our free resources.

Cherwin: Often times on campus there may be a limited amount of staff members in the campus wellness and/or health center, but we know that they can’t be the only ones to manage student health and wellness. What are your recommendations on how institutions can work together across campus to help the student community feel supported?

Cusumano: As mentioned above, there needs to be a campus-wide approach to emotional health and wellness. Campuses can organize interdisciplinary teams made up of staff from different departments (not just health and counseling), as well as students, to engage in this work and form strategic priorities that they want to work on in this area. Leadership can help drive home the point that this work needs to be done campus-wide and create a mission for their campus to work on it. Our JED Campus programs work with schools to create this kind of team that works on a strategic plan for emotional health for their campus.

Cherwin: What has been the biggest transformation you have seen in campus wellness over the last two years, and do you have any predictions for campus wellness in 2022?

Cusumano: I think some of the biggest transformations I have seen is the priority that wellness is now getting on many different campuses. Upper leadership is more supportive of not only their students taking care of themselves but also supportive of their staff members taking care of themselves as well. The pandemic really has shed light on us all needing to have holistic wellness routines that involve not just taking care of our physical wellness but also taking care of our emotional and mental health wellness. Many institutions have added in mental health days for their students and staff, and have provided free resources for meditation, mindfulness, and stress reduction. More and more university wide strategic plans include the words wellness and emotional health.

I think for 2022 we will see more of this happening on campuses and see students advocating for more wellness resources and more mental health services. I also think we will see more attention towards staff wellness and making sure there is help for the caregivers who do the frontline work with students on campus. For example, more attention towards staff wellness in areas like faculty, student affairs, health services, counseling, residence life staff.

Cherwin: Student health and well-being is obviously critical on campus, especially given the current effects of the pandemic. However, employee wellness also has to be at the forefront as well. Are there any different recommendations you have that leadership has to be concerned with in terms of strategies to support the mental health of the staff and faculty?

Cusumano: Employee wellness is vital for leadership to have in mind. If employees are not taking care of themselves or not given the support or opportunities to do so, it reflects back on how they work with their students and feel about the institution as a whole.

Part of the issue that creates employee stress and leads to burnout is not having enough staff or resources to be able to do their jobs well. I encourage leadership to really try and provide adequate staff and the right resources for their employees. Making sure that staff feel appreciated, supported, that their work is valued, and that they are an asset to the institution can go a very long way with improving staff morale.

Cherwin: What is your favorite aspect of working in the field of wellness in higher education?

Cusumano: I would say my favorite aspect of working in the field of mental health and wellness in higher education is the vast impact that can be made on a campus to help improve the college experience and life for a student. I also love seeing people find the wellness tools that work for them that they know they can use for the rest of their lives.

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