Students, University leaders tackle mental health in third ‘Courageous Conversations’

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

Students, University leaders tackle mental health in third ‘Courageous Conversations’

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
Undergraduate and graduate representatives met with President Julio Frenk and other wellness experts to discuss the struggle affecting people nationwide, which was heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly 20 months into the pandemic, many of us are still coping with some anxiety.

For some, it is fleeting. Yet, for others, the feelings are a prominent part of their lives.

That is why for the third event in the “Courageous Conversations” series, hosted by the Office of the President and Student Government, University leaders met with students and faculty and staff members to delve into mental health and learn how the institution can better address this important aspect of campus life.

Launched in 2020, the series of discussions aim to foster inclusion and belonging throughout the University community by offering people a chance to share their perspectives. Monday’s session came at a critical moment for higher education, said President Julio Frenk. Recently, a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that 57 percent of college-aged adults had recently experienced symptoms of anxiety and depression, Frenk noted, adding that suicide rates are still a major concern on U.S. college campuses. This also comes at a time when up to 41 percent of all adults are experiencing anxiety and depression, a 10 percent increase from before the pandemic began, CDC reports indicate.

“We need to understand the difference between an outright diagnosis of mental illness and a whole spectrum of conditions that are part of the normal human condition, but that can become problematic when environmental factors disrupt the equilibrium, separating healthy from unhealthy responses,” said Frenk, a physician and noted public health expert. “The pandemic was an accelerator of change; and as we pick up the pace of progress to meet this dynamic moment in human history, we must do so with an eye towards wellness.”

Moderated by Renee Dickens Callan, assistant vice president of student life, the discussion continued with Student Government leaders voicing their beliefs about the mental health environment on campus. They also demonstrated a commitment to support their classmates by sharing resources that are available at the University, such as the Counseling Center for students and the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program.

Landon Coles, president of the undergraduate Student Government, nudged students to help his team to improve the wellness landscape on campus. He urged anyone in the discussion to check in on friends and classmates, ask how they are doing, and to smile and say hello to others on campus.

“The issue of mental health and supporting students across our campus is not something that can function in isolation—it’s something that happens by supporting students in every area of their student experience,” said Coles, a senior majoring in political science. “And it’s something that our undergraduate student government has dedicated ourselves tirelessly toward.”

Graduate student wellness chair Joseph Bonner, a doctoral student in exercise physiology; Monica Larson, a second-year law student on the Student Bar Association; and Henry Olano, a third-year medical student at the Miller School of Medicine, all echoed the need for more awareness about mental health issues on campus.

Orlando Gonzalez, director of the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, outlined some of the unique mental health challenges that people are facing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s an overwhelming sentiment that people constantly need to reconfigure themselves throughout the whole pandemic; so, there’s this constant need to reevaluate the landscape and to change. And with all of that comes a certain level of stress,” he said. “Work-life balance has become a real challenge for all of us. And people are mourning losses—maybe not just of loved ones, but of their past, of their lifestyle, and the way they used to do things. This is not business as usual, and we have to maintain a certain level of flexibility and compassion.”

Later, participants joined their choice of breakout rooms for a more casual conversation about topics such as how to talk about mental health, managing stress and guarding against burnout, and mindfulness and other self-care techniques. These sessions were led by the student leaders along with wellness staff such as Gonzalez; Rene Monteagudo, director of the Counseling Center; and Sannisha Dale, associate professor of psychology.

In his group, Monteagudo described some of the differences between stress and burnout. While stress causes people to have reactive emotions accompanied by a sense of urgency and hyperactivity, along with a loss of energy, trying to maintain a low level of stress can help people to avoid burnout.

“Burnout is when we are emotionally exhausted, and we have mentally checked out. … It cannot be fixed by a vacation, friends, or getting a massage,” he said.

In addition, he pointed out, burnout causes people to lose motivation, disengage in their work, and withdraw emotionally. It can also lead to depression. Monteagudo suggested that people address stress—before it builds up and turns into burnout—by talking to friends, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, and making physical activity a priority.

Another way to help relieve stress is mindfulness training, which is free to the University community. Visit the UMindfulness for more information.

Finally, the WellTrack application, offered by the Counseling Center, features tools and resources to deal with stressful issues and can help anyone in the University community combat anxiety or depression.

And if anyone in the University community wants to learn the best ways to support a friend, colleague, or student in distress, there is also the Kognito online training. Sessions are about 30-40 minutes.

“Mental health is not separate from physical health. It is a key component of wellness,” Frenk said. “It is also one area of health that tends to be stigmatized, but the stigma can only be reduced if each of us learns to empower, engage, and honor the experiences of our fellow ’Canes. Conversations like the ones we’ve had this evening move us in that direction.”

If you or someone you know needs help, the Counseling Center is open to all students Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Students can seek telehealth services after business hours. Make an appointment.

The Faculty and Staff Assistance Program is also available weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and has locations at the Coral Gables Campus and on the Medical Campus. Those interested should make an appointment.