University counselors, staff adapt to meet students’ holistic health needs

June 30, 2020

Mind, Body and Spirit

by Nikki Harris 

Universities across the country, including St. Mary’s University, have been grappling with increasing mental health concerns among their student bodies. Compounding those existing challenges are the spread of the coronavirus across the United States and the significant shifts in the way we work, learn, teach and live. 

For some, these situations and transitions can strain mental health and hamper achieving daily balance. St. Mary’s is elevating the importance of mental health and wellness on campus through the Student Counseling Center and beyond. 

Creating a wellness culture 

Diane Coalson, Ph.D., Executive Director of the Student Counseling Center and Student Accessibility Services, sparked a mental health initiative on campus before the 2019-2020 academic year. 

“What we’re trying to do is create a culture of health and wellness on campus. And that’s mind, body and spirit,” Coalson said. 

With the help of Staff Psychologist Teresa Caston and Deidra Coleman, Associate Director of the Student Counseling Center, Coalson started working with campus departments and community members to craft a culture of holistic wellness. 

Beyond continuing existing services like free, individual counseling (mind) for undergraduate, graduate and law students, the Center partnered with University Ministry (spirit), as well as a nutritionist (body). 

In the fall, the Center introduced a new Wellness Lab, which offers a quiet space with a rocking chair, yoga mat and computer program with breathing and relaxation exercises for students to practice meditation. 

When the University transitioned to online classes in March during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Counseling Center adapted too, offering telehealth counseling and psychiatric services through telephone sessions and an encrypted-level of Zoom, a cloud-based videoconferencing platform, as well as offering tips to practice self-care at home. 

Coalson’s ultimate goal includes collaborating with more departments and organizations on campus, which may already be hosting mental health events like yoga classes and therapy animal visits. 

“If we pool all those resources, we could take a big step forward in creating a culture of wellness on campus,” she said. 

Out in the open 

The initiative has already garnered support from Student Development, the School of Law and Rattler Athletics. 

“We all need to be knowledgeable of what mental health is. It was my goal to bring that to everyone’s attention on campus,” said Audrey Wandji, vice president of the University’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. 

Wandji, a senior Combined Science major and Women’s Basketball player, noticed a need for increased awareness after seeing her teammates and fellow student-athletes struggle with discussing their well-being. 

“Being a student-athlete, sometimes mental health is put on the back burner,” she said. “You’re expected to be an athlete and a student. It’s a lot of pressure.” 

She and the committee approached Athletics Director Robert Coleman about creating a support system that gives students the space to feel comfortable talking to coaches and teammates — and gives coaches the words and resources to help them. 

“We’ve got to be … really open in our communication,” Coleman said. “If something’s not good, you’ve got to come out with it. You’ve got to talk about it. It’s not a sign of weakness.” 

The significance of self-care 

The School of Law has also adopted wellness and mental health practices, such as free yoga sessions, meditation classes and the annual Law Wellness Week. Law staff stress the importance of making time for self-care, even if students only have an hour at lunch to spare. 

The Counseling Center recommends keeping daily needs in balance with other areas of life: eating well, getting enough sleep, drinking plenty of water, exercising and meditating at home to help students focus better in class and at work — especially during stressful situations. 

“I like to empower students to know that they have the resources and the coping skills to manage difficult situations,” Caston said. “Once they learn that, they can do it.” 

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