University of Minnesota Gets Creative With Campus Mental Health

Each fall, during a campus welcome event at the University of Minnesota, representatives from the school’s mental wellness services challenge students to see if they can balance a peacock feather on their fingertips.

It’s a metaphor for the balancing act called life, and it comes with a trick. After the student struggles for a while, the representative explains that by simply focusing on the eye of the feather, balancing becomes much easier.

“I jokingly refer to it as bait and pitch,” explained Gary Christenson, MD, chief medical officer of Boynton Health Services, one of the campus’ three main mental wellness resources along with a student counseling service and a disability resource center. The attention-getting sight of people trying to balance peacock feathers pulls in the students, which allows the mental wellness workers to deliver the message behind the exercise: Things get easier — life included — if you allow yourself to accept a little help.

The student then gets to take home the feather, with contact information for the campus’s various mental health services attached. “The idea is the feather doesn’t get thrown away in the trash usually. It ends up in pencil cups or on bulletin boards, so our calling card is always out there and visible,” Dr. Christenson said. “It’s really been a big hit.”

It is creative campaigns such as this, mixed with traditional mental health services, that have earned the university kudos for its efforts in addressing the wellness needs of its students. In fact, Active Minds, a national nonprofit that helps student-run chapters work to end the stigma surrounding mental health issues, recently named the University of Minnesota’s program among the top five in the nation, praising its cohesive, innovative approach.

“Active Minds celebrates how these schools are championing student voices, creating equal opportunities for health, providing exemplary prevention, promotion and treatment services, and making the most of available resources,” the nonprofit explained as it announced the winners. “They are thoughtfully using data and evaluation to shape and strengthen their efforts and they are enthusiastically dedicated to ongoing improvement, investment and sustainably supporting student health for the long-term.”

A College Mental Health Crisis

Such help is more crucial than ever. Record numbers of college students at campuses across the nation are dealing with issues such as anxiety, depression, self-harm, substance use disorders and suicidal thoughts. The American Psychological Association deems it a growing mental health crisis.

Why this is so is currently prompting a national debate. Some say today’s young adults have been coddled by overprotective helicopter parents and never allowed to learn resilience. Others say this generation, raised on 9/11, comes by their stress and anxiety legitimately thanks to global unrest, social media that puts them under a constant spotlight, and an economy that means there’s no guarantee the expensive degree they are working toward will translate to a job. And then there’s the simple reality that better medications and therapies mean many students with mental health challenges that might have kept them at home in the past can now attend college — but they need support as they do so.

Whatever the reasons, campuses find themselves struggling to keep up with demand for mental wellness services while simultaneously trying to reach those who might not even realize they need help or who might be reluctant to admit they are having problems.

The Intersection of Art and Health

At the University of Minnesota, that outreach skews toward the unique as a way of cutting through the noise of daily life and the thousand different messages students are bombarded with. “I’m a psychiatrist, but I also have an interest in the interplay of arts and public health,” Dr. Christenson explained. The peacock feather balancing act, a tip from a circus performer he met at a conference, was among the first of the creative efforts. “Seeing that it worked so well, I basically said, ‘Well, the next thing we obviously have to do is have a circus.’”

Cirque De-Stress, as it is called, launched in 2013 as a fun way for students to unwind while they learn about the mental health resources on and off campus. It was a hit and is now a highly anticipated annual event. There are 30-minute circus acts on the hour, giant Jenga, scarf juggling, carnival games, and a host of other activities and performances. There are also therapy animals, including campus legend Woodstock the chicken.

“We know most students come for one of three reasons: they’re curious, they want to have fun or they like circuses,” Dr. Christenson said. “Maybe one in four will answer affirmative to questions like ‘Did you come to learn about mental health resources?’ But when people leave, about 80% will say they have a new skill, that they think the circus contributes to stigma reduction, and they are more likely to seek out help in the future if they need it.”

Other creative campus offerings include a Finding Harmony music festival, in which popular local musicians who have dealt with mental health issues talk about their challenges as part of their performance. There are also numerous alcohol-free events designed to promote sober socializing.

And those therapy animals that first made their appearance at Cirque De-Stress prompted an ongoing program called PAWS, Pet Away Worry and Stress, in which approximately 80 animal teams come to campus multiple times throughout the year to give and get affection. “It’s been really remarkable. … The exciting thing is over 40% of students come three or more times,” Dr. Christenson said. “So they are really taking advantage of this as a stress reduction break throughout the semester rather than a one-time event.”

Behind the Scenes of the Campus Campaigns

To guide its wellness efforts, the campus relies on several powerful components, including its student health survey, which it designed several decades ago and that proved so successful it became the basis of the American College Health Association survey used nationally. “About every two years we will survey our whole student body,” Dr. Christenson said. “It’s a very broad survey but it asks specific questions about mental health as well, so we can watch some of the different health trends and behavioral trends.”

The survey results have proven especially helpful during campus training, in which staff, faculty and students learn how to help a student in distress, he explained. “Once they realize the extent that students may be dealing with mental health issues, particularly the level of suicidal thought, things like that, it gets attention. And if you also present a public health approach, which we emphasize extensively, they realize that they actually have a significant role to play.”

Also guiding and empowering campus efforts is the Provost’s Committee on Student Mental Health. “It’s truly unique. It’s kind of a separate, collaborative structure of all the major stakeholders on mental health on campus,” he said, and includes representatives from Boynton Health Service, the student counseling service, the disability resource center, university police officers, the Active Minds student group, international student and scholar services, teachers’ groups and more.

“One of the things we realized is we had all of these compartments of people addressing mental health issues, but for students, staff and faculty, it could be difficult to know where to turn.” The Provost’s Committee has allowed diverse organizations to get on the same page and work together to craft and support meaningful programs. “It’s truly unique. I don’t know of any campus that has something like this. And it’s probably the most productive meeting I go to because we’ve effected policy, we’ve promoted services, we’ve done training, we’ve done public health messaging. It’s really an incredible effort.”

A Public Health Approach

Like other campuses, the University of Minnesota struggles to keep up with the demands for its wellness services. It’s a big job. With a student population of more than 40,000, “we are a good-sized city in ourselves,” said Dr. Christenson, who has been on campus for more than 30 years, starting with his medical residency. He’s been with his current department for more than 20 years and the chief medical officer for three of those.

“There are times that we are backed up a bit, but we always make sure anyone in crisis gets seen,” he said.

The strategy in meeting the need is a “broad public health approach,” Dr. Christenson said. That includes not only working to change culture and environment, but establishing a preventive approach to mental illness rather than a reactive one.

“The tradition of building a brick building and putting a couple of psychologists and a psychiatrist in it and saying ‘We’re equipped’ no longer works,” he said. “You have to have people out there recognizing and getting people to the right resources.”

There is still hope.

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