Thriving over surviving: Reframing our approach to mental health

Last October, Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass introduced the new director of Psychological Counseling Services (PCS), Wendy Adam, along with updates regarding the College’s long-term goals for student mental health. He recognized that these goals require a shift in how the College approaches mental health: “Dr. Adam and I aspire to create a national model for holistic student wellness and thriving, inclusive of mind, body, heart and spirit. This will require a multifaceted approach that begins with understanding the systemic sources of pressure and stress and developing an institutional culture of mindful self-care.” (“The present and future of mental health: On addressing the College’s support resources for students,” Oct. 26, 2016).

In short, at the beginning of the year, Klass and Adam envisioned a comprehensive model of thriving at the College. This model is a radical departure from the existing culture of survivability that many students engage in. Surviving is practicing the bare minimum of self-care – the things one does to ensure their wellbeing throughout the day. A survivability model prioritizes reactionary or corrective approaches to mental health, therefore contributing to a culture of “getting through the day.”

“Getting through the day” has proven to be a detrimental paradigm for student wellbeing. A recent survey by College Council found that the primary reason for food insecurity on campus is time management. Thus, the problem of prioritizing productivity over wellness is more apparent now than ever. And this is underscored by the pervasiveness of the “myth of effortless perfection” that most Williams students encounter during their time on campus: We assume everyone else is practicing better self-care than we are because we often cannot see how other students struggle in the pursuit of success. At some moment, perhaps at most moments, every student is struggling with some aspect of life at the College, and once students realize they are not alone, there is a sense of collective relief expressed in the collective struggle. This realization that you’re not the only one struggling can be beneficial. However, while this realization recognizes the existence of a problem, it doesn’t propose a solution. We might be willing to give an honest answer to the question of “how are you?” but might not be able to answer the more difficult question of “what do you need to take care of yourself?”

This second question is at the center of a model of thriving. Within this model, self-care is understood not as a means for ensuring productivity but as an end in and of itself, as an intersectional and essential aspect of wellbeing. Adam describes this model as having four components: heart (emotions and relationships with self and others), mind (presence, attention, focus, memory), body (physical functioning, energy, renewal) and spirit (meaning, purpose and connection with something beyond oneself). These four categories are explorations of thriving for the sake of thriving, rather than activities routinized into one’s daily schedule. Therefore, this model is part of a more preventative approach to mental health which emphasizes the importance of community and culture in wellness. A key effect of this model is the fact that a diversity of resources are available to students, extending beyond PCS and into our relationships, our diet, our energy and our purpose.

Since Adam’s arrival in November 2016, a collection of Williams community members has already solidified an institutional relationship that actualizes this holistic model of self-care. This collection is comprised of individuals from PCS, the Health Center, the athletics department, the chaplain’s office, the Davis Center and Office of Alumni Relations, in collaboration with student groups such as College Council, Mental Health Committee, Peer Health and the Gargoyle Society.

Individually, each of these organizations has contributed to the betterment of student welfare. Collectively, each group will collaborate on ensuring that student demand for mental health resources is met, and that there is robust dialogue about why that demand exists and how the community can contribute to its alleviation. The benefit of institutionalizing this collection will be its capacity to make these short- and long-term conversations about mental health accessible, and to streamline the materialization of those conversations into action.

This materialization is currently underway. This Thursday, there will be an interactive workshop series during lunchtime in Paresky Student Center to introduce this new model of thriving to the student body, and to familiarize students with community-based self-care. It is also an opportunity for students to share their thoughts on what mental health resources should look like at the College. As this model of thriving is adapted for the specific needs of our community in the coming years, I am hopeful that the ongoing collaboration between the student body and the College administration will be a role model for all universities committed to the wellbeing of their students.

Jonathon Burne ’17 is an Arabic studies and  political science double major from San Pedro, Calif. He lives in Fitch. Jeffrey Rubel ’17 is a geosciences major from Kansas City, Mo. He lives in Poker Flats.