Handling with care

September 27, 2018
With the innovative Well-Being Center on the way, coupled with a holistic approach to serving the needs of students, Richmond is at the forefront of a well-being movement in higher education.
By Aggrey Sam

Michelle Shuman, ’16, felt overwhelmed. Sure, she had a lot on her plate — working at the Weinstein Center for Recreation and Wellness, serving as the orientation chair for the WILL* program — but the fall semester of her sophomore year hadn’t even started, and in her words, “I was not meeting obligations, duties, and responsibilities as I should have been.”

Shuman sought out her mentor in WILL*, Malori Holloman, ’13, who had a directive to help get her back on track.

“I was so grateful because she said, ‘This is something you need to integrate into your life. Here’s a specific recommendation for a person I know and trust,’” Shuman says.

That person was Kristen Day, a staff psychologist at Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS. Shuman wasn’t able to fit CAPS into her regular schedule during her first year, but finding a therapist she connected with emotionally did wonders to help her understand her issues. Settling back into a consistent fitness regimen also helped — a runner in high school, Shuman also made frequent use of the Weinstein Center when she wasn’t working — but regular appointments with Day became a crucial part of maintaining her well-being as a student.

“As far as things I have taken away from the university that I will carry with me for the rest of my life,” said Shuman, “my time at CAPS, getting back into an exercise routine through Recreation and Wellness, and the WILL* program through Westhampton College — those are the things that truly have shaped my direction and my current lifestyle.”

Shuman, who now works for Merrill Lynch, a position she landed thanks to a chance encounter with a Weinstein Center regular, was well-positioned to take advantage of the resources she needed to keep her head above water and eventually thrive. But what about students who don’t have the same access or aren’t comfortable visiting a therapist or seeking medical care when they need it? And how can the university help students avoid getting to the point where they need clinical services?

Illustration of a flower growing up out of diverse hands, becoming a welcoming campus building

Richmond has long worked to alleviate issues tied to the well-being of students using an approach called “upstream intervention.” Now it’s strengthening them significantly. The university will soon build the Well-Being Center — an innovative facility that will operate as a one-stop shop and personalize a comprehensive range of services for students. Construction begins in March and is scheduled to be finished by the 2020–21 academic year.

The Well-Being Center is poised to set a national standard in higher education. The building will house CAPS, the Student Health Center, and the newly formed Health Promotion — which manages Richmond’s well-being education and prevention initiatives — in the same physical space. These distinct units, in addition to University Recreation (previously Recreation and Wellness), now fall under one umbrella: Health and Well-Being.

The university’s longtime director of recreation and wellness, Tom Roberts, is now the associate vice president of health and well-being, charged with overseeing the integration of the units that will come together in the new Well-Being Center. He has been in constant communication with colleagues Peter LeViness, director of CAPS, and Dr. Lynne Deane, medical director of the Student Health Center, to plan the new building.

“It’s not just collaborating,” Roberts said. “Collaboration is doing a program together. But integration, you’re really joined at the hip. You’re working together. You’re sharing facilities. You’re sharing staff. You’re sharing records. You’re sharing resources.”

The process has already started. One tangible example is the URWell website, where each department is represented and students can access a suite of well-being resources. But even more significant is the use of the word “well-being” itself. “Wellness” is typically associated with physical health. “Well-being” is a broader term that includes the many ways people function in all facets of their lives.

Preliminary rendering of the Well-Being Center

A pair of Spider alumni deserve credit for making the Well-Being Center possible. The Walraths — university trustee Michael, ’97, and Michelle O’Donoghue, ’98 — made the lead gift for the facility through their Walrath Family Foundation. The couple’s connection to Roberts and to well-being in general goes back to their time as students.

Both worked for Campus Recreation — Roberts said Michelle, a health and sport science major as an undergraduate, was in charge of the fitness program, and Michael was an intramural sports official. While the Walraths’ philanthropic interests vary, nutrition and healthy lifestyles are some of the causes they’re most devoted to. They have a film production company, Atlas Films, which has made documentaries about issues like the food industry (Fed Up) and the global water crisis (Tapped), and Michelle opened a health-conscious restaurant on Long Island, Organic Krush.

“Mike and I hope the center will enable UR to become a leader in the campus health and well-being movement,” Michelle Walrath said in April. “Nutrition, which affects our lives in so many ways, needs to be the focal point of our wellness initiative, and we need to think of wellness holistically. If we can do this effectively, we can graduate healthier and happier students.”

For those with knowledge of the Well-Being Center’s details, there’s a palpable sense of excitement. Yes, it will be a state-of-the-art facility — with features sure to be popular with students, faculty, and staff, including sleep pods, massage chairs, and a demonstration kitchen — but its comprehensive integration of services is what makes it unique.

On its upper floors, the building will house the Student Health Center, CAPS, and the office of the university’s sexual misconduct education and prevention coordinator, Britnie Hopkins. The first floor will house Health Promotion, an entry point that falls in line with the university’s strategy of “catching students upstream,” as Roberts puts it. Whether it’s a session on mindfulness involving the chaplaincy or resources emphasizing the importance of proper sleep and nutrition, the idea is to help students stave off more serious, preventable issues down the road.

As Heather Sadowski, director of health promotion, put it: “Having the resources, educational materials, and people that are creating a way to be your best self and have optimal well-being. I say that it’s all about the journey, and I think with Health Promotion, sometimes people are ready to make a positive change, and some people may need some assistance for reaching optimal well-being.”

Having each of the units in the same space enables “warm handoffs,” or referrals among practitioners. For example, if a student visits the Student Health Center because of a physical ailment but mentions he’s also dealing with anxiety, a doctor can simply walk him upstairs — as opposed to instructing him to walk across campus — for prompt treatment.

“It’s similar to one-stop shopping for students,” said LeViness, the CAPS director. “You can go to the Well-Being Center, and there are multiple things you can get there. It’s not just when you’re ill. It could be preventive as well. So, it could be working on sleep, exercise, nutrition — things that can help prevent people from breaking down mentally and physically. But then of course, when people do need our help [the Well-Being Center offers] CAPS mental health services, student health for physical health needs. And it enables us to also do collaborative joint staff meetings or some kind of training in common where we can just walk down the hall to a classroom or a meeting room and converse over things.”

Added Deane, medical director of the Student Health Center, “We don’t work in cognitive silos when we approach providing care for our patients, so removing the physical silos separating us from our colleagues just makes sense and will greatly benefit students.”

Even the location of the Well-Being Center encourages holistic thinking. Its proximity to another future addition to campus, the Queally Athletics Center basketball training facility, means it will be easily accessible to Spider student-athletes. It will also be connected to the Weinstein Center, meshing with the long-held wisdom, backed by modern research, that exercise is, indeed, medicine.

While the announcement of the facility was made in April, plans for it have been in the works for several years. Roberts, along with Deane and LeViness, scouted facilities on other campuses to ensure that Richmond’s is best equipped to meet the needs of students.

“We’re at the forefront,” Roberts said. “But it’s really hard to know what we want in this building because we’re so far ahead of everybody. It’s going to look different in two years when it opens, and three years after it opens, it’s going to look different again.

Illustration of an alumnae standing on a hand, helping a recent graduate up off another hand

“One of the things we’re doing is being very careful, especially with that first level, where Health Promotion will be, to not have a lot of dedicated space so that we can adjust as the best practices change.”

To that end, the university is enlisting the entire campus community — staff like Roberts and his colleagues, faculty, and current students — to gain additional insight into how the Well-Being Center can best serve Spiders. During the feel-good process of developing such a potentially transformative building, at the top of mind for all constituents is a sobering statistic: In the last 15 years, the percentage of full-time, degree-seeking undergraduate and graduate students visiting CAPS has increased from 9.2 to 20.4.

It’s not just a Richmond issue. Nationwide, student development professionals discuss what is often called “a mental-health crisis in higher education.”

“On every single campus, it’s a challenge to keep up with the demand for college mental health,” said LeViness, who is in charge of the Association of University and College Counseling Center Directors’ annual national survey.

Ally Charleston, ’20, didn’t hesitate to go to CAPS when she struggled with the adjustment to college life as a freshman. Diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, Charleston has become an advocate for CAPS on campus and writes a blog about her mental health. She is open about her diagnosis, including for this story.

“I don’t think that a lot of universities have the amount of resources and the care that Richmond puts into its students and their well-being,” she said. “Something that I’ve noticed over my couple of years at the university is the stigma surrounding mental health has really gone down. I think it’s incredible that I can talk about going to CAPS as if it’s not a big deal. I can recommend people to go to CAPS, and they’re really open and excited to be doing that.”

Charleston has worked with CAPS to share information about mental-health resources on campus and on an open-mic event about mental health as part of her role as the chair of student affairs on the Westhampton College Government Association’s executive board. This academic year, she will intern with CAPS and participate in the JED Foundation Campus Program, a national mental-health initiative.

“Even though I’ve been doing so much better, the counseling, support, and the ways I’m involved at the university I think have been extremely beneficial,” Charleston said. “It’s been like a 180 from being so depressed my freshman year, and I think I’ve learned a lot. That’s how CAPS has helped me personally, and I’m always the first to advocate for them.”

It’s a positive development that more students feel comfortable seeking help for their emotional well-being. But in creating the Well-Being Center to address Spiders’ needs in a holistic fashion, one very important question remains: How will it be received by Richmond’s students?

“Being able to put all of these incredible resources in one building — exercise is such as an important part of your mental health, and I don’t think people always realize that — I think it’s only going to encourage students,” said Charleston, who will graduate before the Well-Being Center will open. “Even though I won’t see it in my time at the university, I’m really excited to work on it with them, make it the best that we possibly can, and keep our mission in sight.”

Shuman is also optimistic about the new center’s potential.

“What the well-being initiative, the restructuring of departments, the physical change that they’re hoping to effect on campus, and the cultural change that they’re hoping will come with that physical change show is they’re very attuned to, ‘How can we be better,’ and I really admire that,” she said. “So, in that sense, they’re doing it right, where they see that things aren’t as good as they could be, and they’re working to find a way to make them better. I think the good thing is that they care, and that’s what this shows.”

Aggrey Sam is a senior writer/editor in University Communications.