Ask the students

An article from the American Psychological Association reports that half of college students feel overwhelming anxiety. But a scan of articles from the past few months shows that students and campuses are becoming more effective and creative in dealing with that anxiety.

Mindfulness training. An improv comedy troupe. Therapy animals (even, on one campus this month, therapy miniature horses). Workplaces and communities too are developing and adopting new approaches to cut down the stress and improve wellness.

In fact, today, Yale is holding Stress Down Day, with wellness demonstrations, including yoga and meditation.

I recently received invaluable insight into innovative wellness programs when I helmed a project to award grants to student wellness projects. The Wellness Project, our initiative to promote mental health and wellness on the Yale campus, would select a dozen programs to help fund.

Seeking diverse new ideas, we opened the door to students at all levels—undergraduate, graduate, and professional—as well as student groups. Frankly, I was expecting only a handful of proposals. It takes a lot of energy to source or develop a program and then pitch your case for why it should be supported.

Instead, we got more than 50 applications, from nearly every school, transcending traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Reading the proposals was like opening a door into minds and hearts. What do you value? What are your concerns? And what do you think is needed for a better world?

The answers were surprising and exciting. From looking at the proposals, I learned that this generation doesn’t always see wellness as an individual challenge to be solved alone.

Instead, wellness can be something we tackle in small groups, as communities, on an ongoing basis. Our students wisely respect the difficulty of navigating life today, and they’ve done their homework on what has been done and where the gaps are.

They understand that learning and research, example, experience, and trial all play into creating a successful wellness skill set, and that such skills must last a lifetime and be immediately accessible.

The fact that so many took the time and effort to shape a response, to turn their concern for a better world into action, is heartening.

Beyond the individual value of programs, the proposals were an education on what students want from wellness programs—and where they feel the gaps are.

For instance, here are just a few of the programs awarded grants:

  • The Graduate Student Assembly DeStress Fest looks to host an event with stress-relieving activities, including therapy dogs. It’s part of filling what students on many campuses say is a growing gap in services for graduate students. With the growth in numbers of returning students, students seeking advanced degrees, and those seeking continuing professional education, wellness services will need to expand to meet this new population.
  • Feminist Adventure Club: A School of Art student’s outdoor activity program meets a triple goal in wellness: getting outdoors, creating safe space for all, and providing a social forum.
  • Publicity for Walden Peer Counseling: Breaking silence and sharing stories is a major part of wellness, and yet confidentiality is a keynote concern of our time. This program allows the work of Walden Peer Counseling to be communicated to the public without compromising the anonymity on which the service depends.

Other programs bring people and groups to campus to share experiences and knowledge, including Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison, who has bipolar disorder, and the Conduit Ensemble, a gong meditation concert group.

Part of wellness is learning to be your own advocate and promote your ideas to help others—so to me, the proposal process itself was enlightening.

Aneesha Ahluwalia, class of 2016 and member of The Wellness Project committee, was quoted in a recent Yale Daily News article. She said, “I think it is incredibly important for students to be involved in the Wellness Project, and to identify where they feel there are gaps in what is currently being offered by the University.”

Students like Aneesha have illustrated for me that while we each shape our own future and our own wellness, we don’t have to do it alone. In fact, we’ll be healthier and happier if we work together to create a living and learning environment that nurtures wellness. Together.