Trustee committee discusses student wellness and mental health

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – At its virtual meeting on Nov. 12, the Penn State Board of Trustees Committee on Academic Affairs, Research and Student Life participated in a panel discussion with University administrators, mental health and wellness service providers, faculty and students. The conversation was held as part of the committee’s ongoing commitment to exploring issues of student wellness and mental health.

Panelists lending their perspective to the discussion included:

  • Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs;
  • Ben Locke, senior director for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS);
  • Robin Oliver-Veronesi, senior director for University Health Services (UHS);
  • Laura Hall, senior director for Campus Recreation;
  • Linda LaSalle, director of Health Promotion and Wellness;
  • Stephanie Lanza, professor of biobehavioral health and human development and family studies;
  • Susan McHale, distinguished professor of human development and family studies;
  • Andrea Dowhower, associate vice president for Student Affairs;
  • Shakay Simpson, a third-year student in the Smeal College of Business; and
  • Sydney Statler, a senior in the College of Health and Human Development.

Sims introduced one of the discussion’s major themes – that mental health and physical health are both one part of the broader, more holistic idea of overall wellness.

“The concept of student wellness is increasingly understood to cross an array of concerns that, while they certainly include the psychological and physical health of our students, also touches upon their intellectual, spiritual, social and financial health in interlocking and overlapping ways,” said Sims.

Locke, LaSalle, Hall and Oliver-Veronesi provided updates on how CAPS, Health Promotion and Wellness, Campus Recreation and UHS have continued to serve students during the pandemic. These efforts have included transitioning existing resources to remote delivery platforms, expanding new offerings including tele-health and tele-counseling services, and implementing safety protocols to continue offering in-person services.

Locke stressed the need for universities to “zoom out” and consider student health and wellness as a multi-faceted topic that touches many aspects of a student’s life. Hall also said wellness is very individualized and may look different from student to student, and that wellness resources and programming should reflect this fact.

Simpson said even if the COVID-19 pandemic has not always been the direct cause of mental health issues for students, it has brought more attention to student experiences and challenges that predate it. Making sure students are aware of and have easy access to the resources available to them, Simpson said, is key to helping students succeed.

McHale said the University will use data to better understand student wellness needs and trends over time, as well as the impact of new programming and resources. Lanza offered additional perspective on the concept of wellness, encouraging University leaders to think in terms of empowering students to best flourish and reach their own potential.

Statler shared her experiences as a peer educator in Penn State Student Affairs’ HealthWorks program, where she visits classrooms, clubs, fraternities, sororities and other student organizations to teach fellow students about topics including sleep habits, managing stress and anxiety, sexual health, proper nutrition and physical activity. She said that students have responded positively to these peer education efforts, and encouraged professors across all departments to invite student HealthWorks educators into their classrooms.

Eliminating the social stigma around mental health is also of critical importance, Simpson said. “I think everyone who goes here or is employed by this University needs to be actively trying to eliminate any stigma around (the issue of mental health), because a lot of people aren’t comfortable speaking up and seeking help.”

Trustee and committee Chairman David Han concluded the discussion by thanking the panelists for their insight and expertise, and affirmed the Board of Trustees’ commitment to advancing student mental health and wellness.

“This is a conversation that has been ongoing, so now the task before us is to take these critical elements and deliver them to the population that we serve,” Han said.

Resources for wellbeing

CAPS, UHS, Campus Recreation and Health Promotion and Wellness each offer a variety of resources to support student wellness, including:

Last Updated November 17, 2020