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Saint Mary’s launches mental health initiative focusing on first-year experiences

| Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the use of a wellness initiative survey and incorrectly listed Becky Lindstrom and Shay Schneider as faculty members.

Saint Mary’s decided to make significant changes to how mental illness is addressed on campus. 

The College created two new administrative positions to address mental health concerns. With the help of new staff members Becky Lindstrom and Shay Jolly Schneider, the College launched a new wholeness framework designed to address the physical, mental and emotional needs of its students, particularly through restructuring the first-year experience. 

Lindstrom, a registered life coach, joined the faculty on a two-year contract to help address increasing concerns about wellness and health on campus.

“I was brought in by Saint Mary’s late last year to help the school address the rise in stress and anxiety among students,” Lindstrom said. “The initial conversation was about creating a peer coaching cohort, so bringing in a life coach was the logical first step. Since the start, it has gotten so much bigger. There are so many other pieces involved.” 

Schneider, the new director of retention and first-year experience, said she knew she needed to reach out to new students to address anxieties and improve overall well-being. 

“I work closely with our first-year programming, whether that be through orientation programs, Belles Beginnings, preview days or the first-year experience course [otherwise known as Sophia Program in Liberal Learning] and the peer mentor program,” she said. “We saw that mental health was one of the main reasons that students were choosing to leave. We realized that the retention piece was not missing anything, but there was something we could do better.”

This led Lindstrom and Schneider to combine forces to initiate campus-wide changes, starting with improving some aspects of the freshman experience and educating upperclassmen on how to provide appropriate support and resources. 

“When [Lindstrom] was brought in, we talked about launching this peer coaching program which we are working on,” Schneider said. “We are looking to recruit members during the fall semester with a formal launch in the spring.”  

Lindstrom and Schneider also looked at the first-year program and decided to make some new changes.

“In the past, we’ve gotten feedback from first-year students and peer mentors that they felt there was a lack of connection between the two groups,” Schneider said. “Peer mentors didn’t feel like they were having the best opportunities to build relationships with their first years and vice versa. We saw this as an opportunity to reboot our peer mentor program and bring some fresh energy into that.” 

As new ideas began to develop, Lindstrom created a new wholeness framework to integrate into the SPLL course. 

“The framework is essentially the idea that if you’re going to educate the whole student, you have to help them help themselves by taking care of physical health, mental wellness and faith and spirituality,” Lindstrom said. “You also need to have the emotional resilience to be able to be aware of what you need to feel fulfilled. So we are trying to build that idea of inherent self-worth in addition to self-awareness and fulfillment.”

She said the framework stresses the values of identity and community in the hopes that it will give students resources to succeed.

“The framework is truly about developing the person and what it means to be a Saint Mary’s woman,” Schneider said. “We don’t want anyone to feel like they’re just checking off boxes through a program. It’s something that will ultimately help you to help yourself.”  

While the programs are specifically geared towards freshmen, many upperclassmen have also been provided with the framework. Lindstrom and Schneider said they hope upperclassmen involvement will help the program spread to the populations they can’t reach. 

“The focus was to start with the incoming freshmen hoping that this year, these students will become sophomores — who will then eventually become juniors — and within four years, this will be something that’s known around campus,” Lindstrom said. “While we won’t be doing anything for the sophomores, juniors and seniors directly, we’re hoping that within that leadership community of upperclassmen, this program will spread organically.” 

Peer mentors working with freshmen have noticed a positive change in the restructuring of the first-year program.

“I think the wellness program is so helpful, I wish I had it when I was a freshman,” senior peer mentor Liz Ferry said. “It helps us to frame the conversation, not only how to be a good student, but also how to be a good person and how to focus on your mental health, academics and spiritual well-being. That is all part of your experience at Saint Mary’s.”

Junior, peer mentor Carin Kaminski thinks the new framework provides practical activities to help overall well-being.

“This year we have some new ways to help freshman deal with stress,” Kaminski said. “We introduced this self-planning goal program called WOOP. Also, we have different weeks dedicated to self-awareness, community, how to handle stress and how to get involved on campus.” 

Kaminski also thinks it puts the freshmen in a better position to utilize the resources the College has to offer. 

“I think these freshmen know a lot more than what we did,” she said. “I am telling them everything from the bus schedule to all that our academic offices, counseling and health and wellness center have to offer. I just think we’re giving them all the resources that we possibly know, and because of this, they are a lot more prepared than we were.” 

While many of the program activities are just being introduced, first years are taking the program seriously.

“Right now in my SPLL class we’re discussing the basics of college — time management, stress and how to manage it all,” first year Abby Brown said. “When we’re discussing all of this, I take it seriously.”

The College hopes the new wellness initiative will have significant short and long-term impacts for the school. Lindstrom said she hopes her presence at the College will ultimately allow this project to grow. 

“Short term goals have to be simple and effective,” she said. “We hope to show results for the students so that it gives them the momentum to keep doing it. In the long term, I hope the students will take ownership so that when they graduate, it won’t just be about how to be Saint Mary’s students. It will help them live their lives.”

For Schenider, creating a better future for Saint Mary’s students is a personal goal. 

“As an alum, I think about the things I wish that I had as a first year student,” she said. “It’s not that Saint Mary’s is missing anything, it’s that we’ve seen a concern and given this initiative structure. I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to be part of setting the groundwork and hopefully leaving this legacy of what could truly be a student experience unlike any other.”

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