Peer-Driven Initiatives Bolster Student Health and Wellbeing
At UMass Amherst, we prioritize giving students the support they need to develop skills for well-being that will help them succeed during their time on campus, in their careers, and throughout their lives. While college is exciting and brings many joys and accomplishments, students can face challenges of new academic demands and responsibilities.
With studies showing a majority of college-age adults meet the criteria for at least one mental health issue, sustaining a campus environment that approaches well-being from all directions is critical to providing students with the support they need.
“At an institutional level, well-being is infused in just about everything that we do, from the structure of our buildings to the ways that we interact with one another to the food that we serve in the dining halls,” explains Elizabeth Cracco, PhD, assistant vice chancellor for campus life and wellbeing. “The health of the people, places, and planet involved in the university is critical to our success,” she says, emphasizing the UMass Amherst mission to advance knowledge and improve the lives of the people of the Commonwealth, the nation, and the world.
Cracco leads the Campus Life and Wellbeing Collaborative, which helps students develop resilience and improve well-being across all aspects of everyday life. Areas within the collective include Campus Recreation, the Center for Psychological Health, Residence Education, and the Center for Health Promotion.
In addition to facilitating alcohol education on campus, providing non-judgmental substance abuse screening and intervention, and offering outreach and consultation services, the Center for Health Promotion sponsors several student-driven programs that offer peer-to-peer support. According to Cracco, involving students allows for the most effective delivery of services. “Students live with students,” she explains. “They really are most directly impacted and have the most authentic and well-informed perspectives about what's going on. So, unless our services are informed by them, we're probably missing the mark to some degree.” These programs, among many others across campus, accommodate students who have the desire to help others by providing avenues for them to advocate for the well-being of their peers, develop skills for self-care and resilience, provide counseling and other services, or offer access to real-world training environments that give them a leg up when pursuing careers in health and wellness spaces.
Tommy Claire, a health promotion specialist in the Center for Health Promotion who works as an advisor for many of its peer-driven programs, says he’s seen an uptick in students interested in well-being and an overall “sharper focus on mental health” among the student body. He counsels the Student Wellbeing Advisory Board (SWAB), a group of students who work with campus stakeholders to address health and wellness-related issues and bring student voices to conversations about well-being at UMass Amherst. Microbiology major Tasneem Mohammad and environmental science major Rachel King both joined SWAB after experiencing the social isolation brought on by COVID-19 safety measures—and note that a wave of students joined around the same time. To them, COVID-19 was a catalyst that helped them understand that well-being is more than just physical health, but mental, social, and spiritual health as well. As SWAB members and representatives for their peers’ well-being, King and Mohammad have cultivated valuable skills in outreach and advocacy. For Mohammad, who plans to attend law school and focus on health advocacy after graduating from UMass, the experience has been invaluable. “I pretty much want to do exactly this,” she says, explaining her passion for “making sure people have access to the health resources they need and making sure people know their rights.”
UMass Amherst students interested in promoting campus health and well-being through education, connection, and advocacy can apply for internships in the Peer Health Education (PHE) program. This experiential learning opportunity requires student interns to be responsible for facilitating well-being sessions with first-year students, conducting outreach, and helping to run the Paws Program. PHE interns earn credits, build community, gain leadership experience, and build important professional networks while contributing to the health and well-being of their peers.
This award-winning comedy troupe with a mission has deep roots on the UMass Amherst campus. The Not Ready for Bedtime Players (NRBP) formed in 1988 as part of “The AIDS Follies," a theater project about the AIDS crisis. Today, they address serious topics through lively and popular skits that attempt to destigmatize experiences faced by many students related to gender, relationships, sexually transmitted infections, LGBTQIA+ issues, violence prevention, and more. Their recent “SEXpo” event—free to the campus community—filled the Old Chapel, featured a performance by the NRBP, and allowed attendees to meet representatives from and get involved with campus and local organizations that support sexual health and education.
Early into his college career, sociology major Aiden Leonard struggled with addiction issues that led him to take medical leave from his studies to seek treatment. When he decided to re-enroll at UMass, Leonard knew he needed to find a supportive community to help him stay on his path to recovery. He got in touch with Tommy Claire at the Center for Health Promotion and soon after began to meet regularly with a group of students. By the end of that semester, the community had grown to include about 20 students. Leonard became involved in outreach and helped to brand UMass Recovery as it has grown and flourished into the strong, non-judgmental community it is today. “I couldn’t imagine having fun in college while being sober,” Leonard recalls, but UMass Recovery made it possible for him and others to participate in genuinely fun activities with like-minded peers. "People are passionate about this club," he explains. "It's not just a fun activity. For a lot of people, it's life or death." Leonard credits the community he found in UMass Recovery with helping him academically. "I've never had better grades in my life," he points out. "I'm so much more connected to UMass now," says Leonard, who has developed the confidence to build relationships with professors and has begun taking classes focused on subjects related to addiction. After graduation, he hopes to earn his master's degree in community health education from the School of Public Health and Health Policy and continue his work with UMass Recovery.
UMass Benson-Henry Collaborative
Health promotion specialist Mike Pease began teaching self-care and resilience at UMass Amherst in 2018 when he began working with Veterans Services to co-teach the Resilient Warrior course to students with veteran status. Resilient Warrior was derived from Stress Management and Resiliency Training (SMART), a legacy program from Massachusetts General Hospital’s Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine (BHI). Amid the pandemic, reframing the course for the general student body seemed to make sense. In the fall of 2020, the Student Life and Wellbeing Collaborative launched Positivity and Relaxation Training (PART). This nine-week course helps participants develop a self-care routine to manage stress, improve their outlook and enhance their quality of life. “PART isn’t an intervention program,” explains Pease, distinguishing it from counseling services. “This is the kind of program where we address normal manifestations of stress, depression, and anxiety and teach you how to cope.” “I loved this course!” said one student participant. “It really helped me a lot with my mental health issues (anxiety and depression) and it helps me put things into perspective.” The Student Life and Wellbeing Collaborative also facilitates BHI SMART certification for practitioners to apply in clinical settings.
Food and diet play a central role in promoting health and preventing chronic disease. “Our students know that food is medicine,” explains Elizabeth Devine, registered dietitian and director of the UMass Student Nutritionist Program.
Run by the nutrition department in collaboration with the kinesiology department, the Student Nutritionist Program provides nutrition students with professional training and direction and the opportunity to provide free one-on-one nutrition counseling to their peers and the greater campus community. According to Devine, "there are few if any programs like this currently at other institutions."
“Through this experience, I have been immersed in an environment that has allowed me to put into practice everything I have learned through my degree at UMass,” says Josie Rossbach, a senior nutrition major. “This opportunity has allowed me to counsel fellow students to the best of my ability and push my understanding of nutrition. I now feel comfortable spreading the knowledge I have gained through my time here to help others.”
Active Minds is a national organization that empowers students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and provides information, leadership opportunities, and advocacy training. Eleanor Berch Heyman, LICSW in the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health, coordinates with the UMass Amherst chapter of Active Minds to facilitate events like the Out of Darkness suicide prevention walk and Fresh Check Day—an uplifting mental health promotion and suicide prevention event that includes interactive expo booths, peer-to-peer messaging, free food, and entertainment.
“College is one of the most fundamental growth periods of a young person's life, but with that brings challenges,” says Active Minds president Sierra Curro, an English and psychology major. “It can feel unnatural to suddenly have to figure things out on your own and balance the many responsibilities college brings. As a college student, you are trying to balance school, friends, clubs, jobs, family, etc. while also trying to take care of yourself, so the environment can create a lot of stress. It is so important to address mental health in college students now so that new resources can come out to help students feel physically and mentally healthy.”
This story was originally published in January 2023.