WPI makes a big move to respond to students' mental health struggles
This story contains discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQ Youth at 1-866-488-7386.
WORCESTER — If the Center of Well-Being had been open when he first started at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Theron Howe might have had better support when dealing with his own mental health struggles. He's thankful that he and future students now have the resource.
Approaching the end of his senior year, Howe works as a peer well-being ambassador at the center and was one of several speakers who stood in front of community members gathered for a ribbon-cutting and tour of the facility on Thursday.
“When I was going through my own mental struggles … there wasn't very many readily available resources, the center didn't exist,” Howe said. “I barely figured out what health services was during my first year here, so it sort of is empowering for me.”
Howe is one of several student employees hired to serve as peer well-being ambassadors. In that role, he helps direct students to different resources and acts as a mental health coach if the student needs support.
It is also a space for Howe to get connected with other students and student groups.
“It starts to build this connection where you can meet new people through those who utilize the space," he said.
Praise from WPI President Soboyejo
Interim President Winston Oluwole “Wole” Soboyejo said he hopes the opening of the center signals to students that the school is not only focused on their academic success but also on their health and well-being.
“The center really represents a more holistic approach to well-being,” Soboyejo said. “We’re really looking at well-being as not just the body but also the mind and spirit, in one wholesome way.”
While the center had a soft opening this fall, the ceremony Thursday marked the first time the entirety of its resources were officially available to students.
Thousands of hours of outreach and research went into designing and planning the center, said Dean of Student Wellness Charles Morse, led by a well-being committee made up of hundreds of students, staff and faculty who engaged with experts and the campus community.
“That task force put out over 100 recommendations by January this time last year,” Morse said. “Then, not just letting those recommendations sit, we set up a mental health implementation team that has worked consistently to this day to implement many of those recommendations.”
Paula Fitzpatrick, director of the Center for Well-Being, said students can use the center’s space in multiple ways.
'Rest and recovery'
In addition to the main area, which has snacks and drinks for visitors, and seating to serve as a social or independent reflection space, students can also find respite in the “rest and recovery space.”
It is an isolated room from the rest of the center that has tools at the students’ disposal, such as a zero-gravity chair for lounging, or compression boots for relaxing.
Although the center has two counseling offices located within it, students will still have to make the five-minute walk to the Student Development and Counseling Center for additional counseling services.
But students will have a quiet and private space for teletherapy appointments with their therapists, Fitzpatrick said.
For Katherine, a junior studying robotics and computer science who uses they/them/their pronouns, the space at the center is a welcome addition, they said, but one they would like to see expanded to other areas of campus.
Katherine, who asked for their last name to be omitted due to concerns of being outed, said they have used the space previously and found “overall calm and more modern,” which makes it nice, but that modern flair would also be helpful in other buildings around campus.
They said that while the university has made a “step in the right direction” with the center, the Student Development and Counseling Center could use improvement — not only in the number of counselors available but also ensuring they’re more qualified to deal with students dealing with specific circumstances.
“Dealing with [LGBTQ] students who are starting to unravel the fact that they wouldn't have very good relationships with their families,” Katherine said. “I think that would be something to kind of help with, because that is a very complex situation that I think counselors need to be prepared to deal with.”
Currently, WPI has licensed counselors with whom students can meet an unlimited number of sessions, Morse said.
“For students who come in, they're assessed and we try to figure out who’s going to serve their best needs, what's going to serve their best needs,” he said. “Some students are referred to groups, and they're very happy with that. Other students go to individual therapy.”
But Brie Higgins, a freshman studying computer science and interactive media and game design, echoed Katherine’s sentiment about improving the qualifications of counselors, ensuring they are prepared to work with students from a variety of backgrounds.
Higgins said she thinks the space looks like a “welcoming environment,” and one she would like to see established throughout the campus as it could be potentially helpful for giving students a space both to decompress and to study.
The center, which received approval in 2021, was a multiyear project that the university supported with a $10 million commitment.
Addressing mental health
Morse said the university approved the center not long before several WPI students died in a short period of time in 2021 and 2022, including some by suicide, sending shockwaves throughout the campus community.
A survey conducted by the university found that over 50% of students reported dealing with some type of mental health issue, Morse said.
With a well-being task force made up of hundreds of students, staff and faculty, thousands of hours of research and outreach was conducted to determine what resources and programming would best serve students in the wellness center.
But with the pressure of a student body suffering from mental health issues, as well as the death of several students, the university was pushed to accelerate the implementation of the programs and resources, as well as the center’s opening, Morse said.
“We've had a population where … half of our students are diagnosable with a mental health condition,” Morse said. “You’re never going to be able to build a safety net big enough to support all those students on an individual-counseling or even group-counseling basis. This is meant to supplement and get out in front of a lot of those issues.”
The university has looked at other approaches for addressing student mental health, both at the center and through other methods, such as scheduling several “Wellness Days” throughout the year, during which there are, “no classes, no assignment due dates, no noncritical lab work and no meetings held.”
Previously, students were required to take a physical education course as a graduation requirement, but that has since been changed to make it include wellness courses as well, Fitzpatrick said.
Morse said that the university would be open to other suggestions. One that came from students that has already been implemented: after-hours mental health counseling.
“We brought in a service called Protocol … if a student after hours calls the Counseling Center, they can speak with a licensed clinician within just a few minutes just to talk about what's going on and get support.”
Maryann Davis, a professor at UMass Chan Medical School who is conducting a clinical trial on the efficacy of peer intervention programs focused on undergraduate and graduate students, said WPI’s effort to address student mental health is “wonderful.”
“The fear that colleges have about liability with students' suicide has led to many schools being afraid to acknowledge the extent of the challenge that their students have with mental health,” Davis said. “They're [WPI] leaning into it. They're trying to solve it. It's when schools become afraid that bad things happen.”
Howe said he thinks the university’s administration has responded well to the mental health crisis, but that there will always be room for improvement.
“I think that we've always done a good job, sort of reaching towards that goal, and … hopefully in four years, or five years or 10 years, when I'm gone, people will come in, and they'll be able to see the work that people have done in my time, that I’ve helped participate in,” Howe said. “Be able to actually take from that, ‘Oh, these resources exist, I can go to them and actually use them because initiatives like this were taken early.’ “
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Worcester Polytechnic Institute opens Center of Well-Being