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Students advocate for well-being resources in syllabi | VTx

As the Virginia Tech community comes together for the spring semester, mental health, well-being, and community support for those who are struggling have emerged as top concerns.

Thanks to Alyssa Wills and Saad Khan, the message also appears on many class syllabi. Wills, a senior studying psychology and criminology, is the president of the Virginia Tech chapter of Active Minds, a national student organization focused on mental health for college students. Khan was secretary of the organization until he graduated in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in clinical neuroscience and a minor in psychology. He is now working with Hokie Wellness as a member of the mental health initiatives team.

The Active Minds’ mission states that “…no one should have to struggle alone. By empowering young adults to speak openly about mental health, we can reduce stigma, encourage help seeking, and prevent suicides.”

“Improving mental health policies and structures at Virginia Tech is one way Active Minds facilitates a culture that breaks barriers that might prevent students from getting the help they need,” said Wills.

“Destigmatizing mental health is important, and communicating about these issues is incredibly valuable to ourselves and to our communities,” Khan added.

Active Minds hosts advocacy meetings every semester. They are a chance for members to provide a voice to their causes. “We listened to our members to amplify their voices,” said Wills. “Our advocacy meetings are inspired by Active Minds’ Spirit Week to advocate for policies and initiatives in the [Virginia Tech] community. This ensures everyone has access to mental health resources, and holding space for students in this manner is a tradition we intend to continue.”

Always looking for new ways to spread their message, Wills and Khan realized that the course syllabus presented a perfect opportunity to draw attention to mental health resources on campus. Since all students receive multiple syllabi, a statement voluntarily included by faculty would show both awareness and support for mental health concerns in addition to encouraging students to seek help if they need it.

What followed is a case study in process and persistence.

Wills and Khan brainstormed a sample statement, then consulted with numerous faculty and staff members for thoughts on refining their statement. They also sought advice on ways to present the proposal to the university. Biology Instructor Mike Rosenzweig, Swathi Prabhu, Hokie Wellness assistant director of mental health and bystander initatives, and David Andrews, associate director for Hokie Wellness, took part in developing the statement, as did faculty and staff in Student Affairs and Services for Students with Disabilities .

Wills and Khan brought the statement to the Mental Health Coalition, a group of student organizations that share the goal of promoting mental health for all Virginia Tech students. All groups supported the statement.

Last fall, the optional syllabus statement was shared with President of the Faculty Senate Robert Weiss, a professor of natural hazards in the College of Science’s Department of Geosciences. Weiss disseminated the statement to all departmental representatives in the Faculty Senate and encourage discussion among the department faculty.

“The past two years have been very challenging for everybody,” said Weiss. “We need each other’s company for our well-being. Students are more likely to be isolated and alone. I cannot praise enough the mission of the Active Minds program that ‘no one should have to struggle alone.’”

In January, Rachel Holloway, vice provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs, ensured the statement’s inclusion in the provost’s weekly communication update, which focused on syllabus development.

The suggested statement, which faculty can choose to include in their class syllabus, reads in part: “Supporting the mental health and well-being of students in my class is of high priority to me and Virginia Tech. If you are feeling overwhelmed academically, having trouble functioning, or are worried about a friend, please reach out to any of the following offices.” A list of campus and community resources follows. The statement concludes with: “Please also feel free to speak with me. I will make an effort to work with you; I care about your well-being and success.”

“Given the importance of awareness and engagement of the campus community in mental health issues, the efforts of Alyssa and Saad are timely and appreciated,” said Christopher Flynn, executive director of Mental Health Initiatives at Virginia Tech and co-chair of the VT Better Together campaign. “Given that there is no health without mental health, a university focus on mental wellness and resilience will maximize student success.”

Wills’ and Khan’s initiative coincides with the results of a survey of faculty conducted by Sarah Lipson and her colleagues at the Healthy Minds Network. They examined faculty views of student mental health during the pandemic through a study of 1,685 faculty from 12 colleges and universities. In the study, entitled “The Role of Faculty in Student Mental Health,” faculty expressed their desire for more information about support for students who may be in distress, including a list of mental health resources at their institutions, a list of warning signs of mental and emotional distress, and a mental health statement to include in their syllabi.

Active Minds at Virginia Tech and its mission are aligned with this national trend.

In a recent conversation on the university’s public health strategies, Vice President for Student Affairs Frank Shushok Jr. squarely addressed the issue of mental health.

“If you’ve been alive the past two years, it has been rough, rough, rough, rough on people and that’s on top of struggling before the pandemic,” Shushok said. “It’s been really hard for everybody, and it’s important for people to realize they’re not the only ones out there by a long stretch.”

“Our student community needs to know just how much we all care about mental health on campus, and we have the power to show them where they can get started on that journey,” said Khan.

Virginia Tech’s resources for mental health and well-being include:

  • Cook Counseling Center — Schedule an appointment and/or 24/7 crisis support: 540-231-6557; ucc.vt.edu for more information
  • Dean of Students Office — General advice: 540 231-3787; after-hours crisis: 540-231-6411; dos.vt.edu for more information
  • Hokie Wellnesshokiewellness.vt.edu for more information about health and wellness workshops and consultations
  • Virginia Tech Recovery Community
  • Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) — Accommodations and other disability-related supports: 540-231-3788; ssd.vt.edu for more information

See a full listing of campus mental health resources at www.well-being.vt.edu/mental.

Faculty and staff looking for resources can download the Virginia Tech Student Distress Guide and become certified in Mental Health First Aid.

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