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UMass Lowell Steps Up For Student Health

Tools Include People, Programs and Services

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Stress Relief Day is one way the university helps students cope with the demands of college.

By Sheila Eppolito

A walk through the university’s Wellness Center provides a sense of the warm, expert and coordinated care available to students. Awash in soft hues of blue and green, the center is home to Counseling Services, Health Services, Disability Services and Health Education – all under one roof in new space at University Crossing.

The space has been planned carefully to create a welcoming environment. Myriad details are carefully incorporated into the space – back doors that allow for patient privacy, accessible bathrooms, private counseling rooms and hospital-quality exam rooms – to make students feel comfortable.

The staff of the Wellness Center acts like a well-oiled, professional support team – they’re committed to having students’ backs (and minds) – using every tool at their disposal, even as most of their work goes on quietly, privately, behind the scenes.

The team is well-qualified to deal with the range of issues students are facing. The Wellness Center is staffed by master’s and pre-doctoral advanced psychology graduate students, professional mental counselors, health counselors, disability access professionals, as well as registered nurses and nurse practitioners and other staff members who support students seeking services. Counseling Services also employs a part-time MD and psychiatrist and doctoral intern, and Health Services contracts with an advising physician.

College has always been a time for change, adjustment and stress. Universities across the country report a growing demand for health services, particularly mental health support. Here on campus, the expanding residential population as well as the increase in international students has contributed to the growing demand for services. 

“These students don’t leave campus after classes, go home and vent to family about a bad day,” says John Pakstis, director of counseling. “As residents, they look to the university for support, and we are there.”

The Support Tool Box

To augment individual counseling and health-care services, the Wellness Center staff has developed a number of programs with campus groups to support students. 

  • Campus Recreation: “The strong connection between the mind and body is indisputable – we work with partners in Campus Rec to offer students free personal training from upper-class exercise physiology students earning their in-service hours,” says Pakstis. “The results are terrific – sometimes it’s all a student needs to reduce their stress and get through a rough patch.” Justin Lawler, associate director of Campus Recreation and co-chair of the Health and Wellness Strategic Infusion Team, has offered stress relief days around exams, featuring free massage, therapy dogs and more, and has recently created an online wellness wall, which he hopes will serve as a one-stop spot to connect students with resources. 
  • Healthy HAWKS:  Members of the Healthy HAWKS peer education group help connect other students to health resources. “We train students to share easily accessible and relatable health information about alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, sexual and reproductive health, sexual assault prevention, stress and other issues,” says Tracy Moore, assistant director of Health Education and Promotion. The HAWKS host workshops, stress relief fairs, residence hall programs, Wellness Wednesdays and dozens of events through the academic year, and Moore says that some of the program’s success comes from its student-to-student nature. “Sometimes it’s easier to listen to advice from a peer.”
  • Suicide Prevention: Funded with a federal grant, the university has amplified suicide prevention efforts. Jacqueline Keeves, assistant director for Violence Prevention, has partnered with the New Hampshire branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to provide Connect, a workshop designed to help faculty and staff identify the warning signs of mental health struggles and suicide risk. Connect is a “train the trainer” model where faculty and staff who’ve been trained and certified by NAMI return to their respective departments and train others.  
  • Anti-Violence and Sexual Violence Outreach: Keeves’ efforts are designed to arm students with information and strategies to avoid violence, and to deal with it appropriately if it happens, including “Bringing in the Bystander” – a workshop that focuses on identifying sexual violence and safe bystander interventions. “We’re also programming on rape culture, reporting and general education on consent – these are some of the cultural concepts that can change over time,” says Keeves. Keeves has also introduced the “kNOw MORE” campaign to normalize the discussion on sexual violence.
  • ‘Meeting People Where They Are’: Paulette Renault-Caragianes, assistant dean for Student Affairs for Health and Wellness, is a firm believer in getting out of the office and meeting students on their terms, in ways that make them comfortable. As a result, counseling services and partners in Residence Life host meetings and workshops in residence halls. 
  • Rally the Troops: Renault-Caragianes and the rest of the counseling staff agree that when tackling students’ health needs, more is better. 
“Collaboration with front-line people – whether they’re in the rec center, residence halls or in student activities – results in better early intervention, where help is provided before a student gets to the point of needing to come to the counseling center,” she says. 

“Trained front-line representatives can plant seeds that help students understand situations, and call on appropriate responses for themselves while identifying support systems available.”

For more information, visit the UMatter website.