Building well-being

September 25, 2020
The new Well-Being Center, set to open in stages this fall, will significantly enhance the University’s comprehensive approach to caring for students and keep Richmond at the forefront of colleges exploring modern approaches to student well-being.
By Matthew Dewald

When plans for the Well-Being Center were announced, some of the features of the first fltoor sounded positively idyllic: a meditation garden, an organic café, a Himalayan salt room. This building, details like these announced, is here to help you to be healthy, energized, and yes, happy.

Bringing health and wellness services under a single roof — the second floor is the new home of the Student Health Center, and the third floor houses Counseling and Psychological Services, or CAPS — allows the university to offer a one-stop shop for a comprehensive range of services for students. It also allows staff in these areas to work more closely with one another. For example, a nurse in the Student Health Center who believes a student may be struggling with a mental health issue can refer that student right upstairs to CAPS. This integration of services is an important goal of the new building, said Tom Roberts, associate vice president of health and well-being.

“You’re working together,” he said. “You’re sharing facilities. You’re sharing staff expertise. You’re sharing information. You’re sharing resources.”

A related benefit is privacy. Students who might have been self-conscious about being seen visiting CAPS when it was located away from the university’s other health services will now be able to visit more discreetly because of the variety of services available on the second and third floors.

Left, a walkway alongside the future meditation garden; right, a multipurpose studio space for yoga and other mindfulness activities.

The Well-Being Center is at the forefront of the latest evolution of thinking about the critical link between student well-being and higher education. Higher education leaders have long been interested in this link. As early as the middle of the 19th century, colleges were already adding physical education and hygiene coursework, according to a 1995 history of student health centers by William Christmas.

Medical doctors started joining college faculty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as college leaders increasingly recognized, in the words of an Amherst College president of the time, that “students of our colleges have bodies which need care and culture” and that steps should be taken to prevent “the breaking down of the health of students, especially in the spring of the year.” This led, in turn, to the development of robust student health centers throughout the 20th century as parents began to expect institutions to safeguard the physical health of their children.

Beginning in the 1960s, institutions increasingly recognized the important role of mental health in student success and began adding counseling and other psychological services. In recent years, demand for these services has exploded nationwide, including at Richmond. A dozen years ago, Richmond’s CAPS saw about 13% of undergraduates at some point during their four years. The current figure is 21%.

An even more comprehensive view of student health, which Richmond is helping pioneer, is evident throughout the first floor of the Well-Being Center in those idyllic details. The first floor of the center is devoted to health promotion, or what Roberts calls “catching students upstream.” This focus on healthy living and mindfulness is designed to prevent the development of physical and mental health issues before they take root.

In addition to soothing spots for meditation and contemplation — such as the meditation garden and Himalayan salt room — the first floor features flexible spaces for wellness classes and functions, including a gorgeous, naturally lit studio for sessions devoted to yoga, mindfulness, and other practices that promote wellness. The organic café complements a demonstration kitchen, where a registered dietitian will develop programming to teach students about healthy food preparation. The center also provides direct access to the Weinstein Center for Recreation, which was extensively reconfigured over the summer.

The focus on healthy living and mindfulness is designed to prevent the development of physical and mental health issues before they take root.

This facilities investment matches other investments the university has been making to meet students’ health needs. While the Student Health Center has not seen the dramatic overall increase that CAPS has seen over the previous decade, it still sees approximately 47% of all students, and the complexity of the cases it sees has increased, Roberts said.

Recent changes are significantly increasing the capacity of the Student Health Center and CAPS. A staff reorganization added a nurse practitioner to the health center, increasing the number of weekly appointments available by 56. This and other staffing and labor changes increased its clinical capacity by more than 20%. It also reworked staff schedules to allow appointments to continue through lunch and later into the afternoon. On the CAPS side, staffing, labor, and scheduling changes — including two new counselor positions — have increased the number of appointments and clinical capacity by almost 40%, and a new stepped care model will reduce wait times and improve student access to appointments.

One of the newest staff members will be blissfully unaware of any of these changes but may prove to be one of the building’s most popular caregivers. He is also an example of the breadth of services and creative thinking Richmond is devoting to students’ health.

His name is Emmett. He is an even-tempered, attention-loving goldendoodle who will come into the office every day with his owner, Kathy Harvel, a registered nurse in the Student Health Center, to serve as a therapy dog. He will be in 40 hours a week, and student employees will be trained to help as his handlers. It may become the most popular student job on campus.

Student Health Center nurse Kathy Harvel with the Well-Being Center's newest staff member, her dog Emmett, a trained therapy dog.

An established body of research shows the benefits Emmett and dogs like him can bring to people who are comfortable around them, including better mood, improved blood pressure, decreased heart rate, and help with depression and anxiety.

“Our hope with Emmett is that he will be able to connect with students who might be homesick or missing their own dog at home,” Harvel said. “Dogs offer therapeutic benefits because people know that they don’t judge. They’re not looking at what you’re wearing or the look on your face. They’re just happy you’re there.”
His daily schedule will typically include time at the front reception area, visits with students awaiting other caregivers, and one-on-one appointments. He’ll also have ample time off in the day — “more break times than I do,” Harvel joked.

The holistic strategy of bringing wellness initiatives and resources together under one roof is very close to the heart of Michelle Walrath, ’98, who worked for Roberts at the fitness center when she was a student. The Walrath Family Foundation, which she established with her husband, Michael, ’97, provided the lead gift that makes the center possible.

“Mike and I hope the center will enable UR to become a leader in the campus health and well-being movement,” she said. “If we can do this effectively, we can graduate healthier and happier students who have the potential to initiate a downstream effect on the health of our society.”

Matthew Dewald is the magazine’s editor.