Faculty and staff crucial to campus mental well-being

For some students, taking tests can evoke fear and anxiety. Dr. Monica Kennison, Susan V. Clayton Nursing Chair at Berea, knows how common and incapacitating test anxiety can be. She developed a strategy that’s been particularly helpful. Together, she and the student enter the computer testing room, sit in front of a computer and walk through a progressive relaxation exercise. She then encourages the student to return to the testing room and practice the relaxation alone. This builds a link between the room and a sense of calm that the student can draw on during testing.

This is just one way faculty and staff at Berea are attuned to the mental well-being of their students and actively intervene on their behalf.

“Faculty play a crucial role,” Kennison said. “It is not unusual for students to confide in us because we work so closely with them. We often are cognizant of subtle changes in student behavior and can initiate a conversation.”

Walk beside

In recognition of this crucial role, one of the emerging themes of the Task Force on Trauma and Resilience, convened in fall 2018, was professional development for faculty and staff who work directly with students. Dr. Stephanie Woodie, associate professor of health and human performance, sees its importance. “I began teaching in 1988, and things have changed a lot,” she said. “We didn’t even talk about depression or anxiety. Now we are much more open about it, and more students are identifying as experiencing it.”

Last June, the College offered a training for labor supervisors, a staff group that works closely with students. The Trauma and Resilience Basics training was led by Karen Newton, a Koru mindfulness trainer and adjunct faculty member at the University of Louisville and the parent of a Berea graduate. She introduced the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on students and the benefits of protective factors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines ACEs as potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood up until the age of 17. Protective factors such as a caring relationship with a parent or caregiver can shield children from ACEs.

Understanding these concepts helped participants shift mindsets from “what is wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?” This broader context fosters empathy when working with students who are struggling with work-performance issues. The training also included a reminder that all people have healing potential.

My vision is to establish a space of safe connection where individuals can risk vulnerability. I want to encourage our campus community to slow down and listen to each other.

Dr. Amanda Wyrick

“As a faculty member, it is important for me to be aware of potential trauma students have experienced, like the long-term impacts of [racism] and poverty,” Woodie said. “We can learn to see ourselves, not as a person who can fix it, but as someone who can walk beside the student, provide insight and support, and share the experience.”

Dr. Amanda Wyrick, associate professor of psychology, helped develop a manual for staff on how to walk beside students who express feelings of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. One special area of concern for her is boundaries for faculty and staff. Part of that is knowing when a student needs more help than a faculty or staff member can offer.

“I ask myself, ‘Can I maintain my role right now, or am I moving into the role of friend or parent?’” she explained. “The answer to that question provides a clue as to whether my interaction with a student can remain healthy for the both of us.”

A resilience toolkit

Campus-wide, there is an emphasis on not just handling crises but creating opportunities to nurture students’ resilience. This is of particular concern for Kennison. “Nationally, there is a silent but real problem of an increased incidence of suicide among nurses compared to the general population,” she explained. “Nurses are the largest healthcare workforce on the front lines of caring for individuals who are violently injured. Students need a resilience toolkit.”

Kennison and the rest of the nursing department have made this toolkit a top priority. The Martha Fox Memorial Psychiatric Nursing Lecture series sponsored a virtual seminar about mental health for nurses and students in October. Dr. Susan Painter and Dr. Karen Cheeseman from Case Western Reserve University shared about risk factors, coping and self-care strategies, and the importance of creating supportive dialogue among colleagues.

The nursing faculty incorporate other practices for well-being. They serve healthy snacks during finals week. They practice Dr. Amy Cuddy’s “power pose” with students. Cuddy, a social psychologist, says standing for two minutes with your feet apart and your hands on your hips (think the famous Wonder Woman stance) is linked to improved confidence and performance in stressful situations, as well as decreased stress. They introduce a structured mindful pause, which in some clinical situations is linked to fewer errors in practice. It is all in the pursuit of instilling resilience tools and improving mental health in their future nurses.

A space of safe connection

While there is a growing national recognition of the mental-health needs of college students, Wyrick is concentrating her work on a less-discussed topic: how schools like Berea are handling compassion fatigue and burn-out of the staff and faculty who work with students.

“We can’t just focus on wellness of students without faculty and staff,” she said. “Other institutions are dealing with heightened stress in students, but not a lot of colleagues tell me they are getting support for their well-being. Berea College has said we believe this is important, and there is a lot of support for the task force work.”

Wyrick is spending the 2020-21 school year on sabbatical. Her research topic emerged from her work with the task force; she is exploring creating a learning community focused on faculty and staff resilience. The first component will be grounded in psychoeducation as members explore aspects of burn-out and stress. The second element will focus on building resilience.

“The goal is not a list of things to do, which can be guilt-inducing,” she said. “It will be about tools we can practice together in community.”

The final component focuses on the community aspect of the experience. “My vision is to establish a space of
 safe connection where individuals can risk vulnerability,” she added. “I want to encourage our campus community
to slow down and listen to each other.”

Wyrick says book studies that emerged from task force recommendations gave a taste of these kinds of communities. One text was “The Upside of Stress,” by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., which focuses on strategies for embracing the benefits of this much-maligned aspect of human experience. The impact of stress depends on the mindset we have about it, according to McGonigal, and we can use it to actually increase our resilience.

Participants recognized the material was not just about students, but for their own well-being. “Book groups were a start to building a really great connection with faculty and staff,” Wyrick said.

Woodie, Kennison and Wyrick have helped lay the groundwork for a healthier Berea College campus community. “The work of the task force makes Berea more proactive, with a self-care and resiliency mindset,” Kennison said. “It opens the conversation, decreases the stigma around mental health and leverages students’ strengths. During COVID-19, we have been focused on physical well-being, but the pandemic is exacerbating mental-health concerns. The work of the task force has proven to be relevant, timely and essential.”

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