Youngstown State University (YSU) held most of its classes virtually throughout the 2020-2021 school year to ensure the safety of students and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In some ways, this has led to two classes of freshman on the campus this year, says Kristin Bruns, an associate professor and coordinator of the College Counseling and Student Affairs program at YSU: True freshman who are beginning their college careers and sophomores who are interacting with peers on campus potentially for the first time.
Last year, YSU students did not have regular access to the locations and activities that often foster friendships and connection organically, such as eating in dining halls and in-person events organized by student affairs offices. That shift, along with the overall stress of the pandemic, has affected student wellness across the board, most notably in the realms of mental health and social wellness, notes Bruns, a licensed professional clinical counselor (LPCC).
YSU’s student counseling center saw such an increase in demand for services last year that they contracted Bruns and Amy Williams, a colleague who is an LPCC and assistant professor in YSU’s Department of Psychological Sciences and Counseling, to counsel students in addition to their teaching duties.
When Bruns and Williams applied for and were awarded a federally funded COVID-19 relief grant this past summer to support students’ mental health as the YSU campus reopened in the fall of 2021, they knew the project should have a wellness focus. The result is a campus-wide program with dozens of initiatives focused on student wellness, including a depression screening event; sessions on conflict resolution, stress management and many other topics; and incentives for students to engage in wellness-focused activities.
The YSU Department of Campus Recreation was already using a wellness model with nine pillars (emotional, career, spiritual, physical, financial, aesthetic, environmental, social and intellectual) prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, so it was a natural fit to use that same model for the grant program, Bruns says. Each month has roughly 10 activities or initiatives focused on one of the wellness model’s pillars.
“From a college student development lens, we know that learning is not just academic learning,” Bruns says. “Students learn through being engaged on campus. The [grant program’s] focus is to get them engaged not just with wellness topics but [also] with peers.”
“Given that many things happened virtually for over a year and many are still happening in a virtual format, there have been challenges to get students reengaged on campus,” she continues. “Students talk about how difficult it is. They’re learning or relearning what opportunities exist for being engaged on campus. For those who have been online primarily at the end of the high school experience and then entrance to college, they may be learning how to make friends in this atmosphere. We have needed to equip them with skills on how to ask questions [and] how to approach a professor or a peer.”
Adding to this learning curve is the fact that some students are still struggling with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including increased anxiety, loss over last year’s missed experiences and financial worries, Bruns adds.
When planning the grant program, aptly named “Bouncing back from COVID-19,” Bruns and her cohort partnered with more than 20 different offices on the YSU campus to create and help promote wellness-focused activities. They are also making the program’s resources and materials available to YSU staff, and some professors have been incorporating lessons on topics such as resilience and stress management into classes.
Ten YSU counseling graduate students are involved and help run activities and information booths, such as a monthly table events with resources and giveaways.
Program organizers are intentional about distributing resources and information about how to find support, both on the YSU campus and in the local community, at each wellness activity, Bruns says. They also hosted a workshop for faculty at the start of the year on students’ needs in the midst of the pandemic, including a recommendation to check in with students regularly and information on how best respond to student concerns.
Campus-wide workshops for students have included sessions on making smart choices with substance use, organization and time management, mental health and mindfulness, and physical health, including the importance of hydration, sleep, healthy eating and physical activity.
Bruns, Williams and their cohort will report the full results of the grant program later in 2022, but so far, they’ve seen it boost student engagement and make campus reentry a little easier for all involved.
“Our wellness focus is trying to take away the stigma of [help seeking] and understand that an approach through a self-care and wellness lens can help better manage symptoms and mental health,” Bruns says. “We are engaging students by bringing the opportunities to them in a variety of ways (e.g., to the classroom, tabling in the student union, hosting small groups and campus-wide workshops). We wanted to make the materials and information accessible to the students and for them to have these types of conversations to see they aren’t alone in their wellness journey. We knew that it was a need.”
Find out more about the grant program at ysu.edu/bouncing-back.
Look for an in-depth cover story on addressing client wellness in the January 2022 issue of Counseling Today.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.