Mindful maintenance: Anderson University’s commitment to student mental & spiritual health
Written by Alexander Grant
While higher education’s main goal is to enlighten students through academia, it’s also a vital time to develop habits of healthy living, both physically and emotionally. However, college students report the highest rates of depression and anxiety in the American population–and the United States Center for Disease Control and Prevention has sounded the alarm.
Last February, the CDC published the Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Covering the period from 2011 through 2021, the report revealed troubling trends in student mental health. For example, the CDC reported ‘nearly 45 percent of (students) were so persistently sad or hopeless in 2021 they were unable to engage in regular activities.’
Yet the CDC suggested a possible path forward–one that Anderson University put in place well before troubling student mental health trends emerged. ‘Our research shows that surrounding youth with the proper support can reverse these trends and help our youth now and in the future,’ CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Debra Houry said in a press release announcing the report. The announcement went further, indicating ‘that a sense of being cared for, supported and belonging at school…had an important (positive) effect on students.’
That’s good news for Anderson University students. While some of the same trends revealed in the CDC report have shown up among AU students, the fact remains that keeping students connected in a close-knit and caring community is one of Anderson’s core principles.
‘AU team (staff) members know that one element of maturing and becoming an educated person is developing emotional well-being,’ said Anderson University Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Jim Fereira. ‘An Anderson University education will provide numerous opportunities for students to grow in healthy relationships and in their personal and emotional stability as they mature into young adulthood.’
‘I think we try to see each student as an individual and try to listen not only to what they say, but what they mean by what they say because sometimes it’s not the same thing. And at the end of the day, my goal is to help the student leave the office a little bit better than when they came in– and to help the University continue to be a place where students live healthier lives, body, mind and soul.
– Dr. Dianne King
Associate Vice President for Student Development,
Dean of Student Success and Title IX Coordinator
According to admitted student survey data, a vast majority of students choose Anderson University because of its connected campus culture–what we would describe as one of AU’s foundational pillars: Great Hospitality.
So, the proper environment to support student mental health is in place. And the University is well-aware that it’s necessary. ‘In 2018, we had 37 students requesting accommodations for mental health disabilities,’ said Associate Vice President for Student Development, Dean of Student Success, and Title IX Coordinator Dr. Dianne King. ‘This past fall, we had 99.’
Though the number of students struggling with mental health challenges has increased, most of the concerns revolve around the same issues – giving the University a better sense of how to bring resources to bear to help students thrive.
‘What we see the most in the counseling center is anxiety and depression,’ said Anderson University Director of Counseling Services Erin Maurer.
Maurer said that though students may experience some levels of mental health struggles before attending college, it often worsens during their college years because of the stress of this major life change.
To combat this influx of students dealing with anxiety and depression, it’s up to colleges, their faculty, and the students themselves to promote positive mental health strategies and continue to further destigmatize seeking help for mental struggles, experts say.
One way Maurer does this is through training anyone she can in crisis prevention and general practices for good mental health.
‘I trained faculty members, staff members, really anybody that they’ll let me train just because I really believe that mental health is a community problem. Therefore, it needs a community solution. And so, more individuals supporting students takes pressure off the Counseling Center because we have more hands and feet on the ground, interacting with students and supporting those needs,’ Maurer said.
Maurer and her team of counselors have been working to improve the accessibility and promotion for the counseling services they offer.
‘We utilize our social media to market our services,’ Maurer said. ‘Also, this past year, we’ve done some social media campaigns where we try to get student involvement and participation. And so, you know, just trying to create some conversation and a platform where people feel like they can express their mental health needs.’
There’s hope for those struggling with mental health, especially with Anderson University and its faculty members being committed to giving students as many resources as they can in order to improve their mental health. And, of course, the integration of faith and the importance of a healthy spiritual life – hallmarks of the AU story – are critical as well.
‘This year, we’re going to have three full-time and three part-time counselors,’ Maurer said. ‘One of the things that has been a huge blessing at this University is that we feel well-supported and we have been able to add staff to support the growing need.
‘We’re also kind of moving away from having a set number of counseling sessions and really just giving more ability for our counselors to determine what is needed,’ Maurer said. ‘So really, we’re trying to keep it individualized and based on that student’s need and how long they need to see one of our counselors.’
The professors are also committed to doing everything they can to help students and offer grace when possible – another way AU integrates faith into the process.
‘Next to the Counseling Center, the Student Care team is our most valuable asset in supporting student mental health, and it is the most collaborative asset as it includes representatives from every area of the University to help us recognize
Mental (and other) health concerns before they become problematic,” Dr. Fereira said.
“I try to be as flexible as possible with students while also maintaining an academically rigorous class,” said Associate Professor of English Dr. Derek Updegraff. “I show as much grace to my students as I can while still being fair to the rest of the class. I don’t ask for too many details, but I need to have some idea of what has been going on in the student’s life. I help if I can and if the student is willing to open up to me. I am in my office for many hours five days a week, and I like to think that students know I’m readily available to chat with them. Two of the best things I can do for my students are to let them know that I care about them and that I’m rooting for them, and to make sure they know what resources are available to them as AU students.”
‘I really believe that mental health is a community problem. Therefore, it needs a community solution. And so, more individuals supporting students takes pressure off the Counseling Center because we have more hands and feet on the ground, interacting with students and supporting those needs.
– Erin Maurer
Anderson University Director of Counseling Services
The students also offered some ideas that Anderson University could utilize to spread awareness about mental health, work with the students to relieve academic pressure, and combat burnout and stress.
“A lot of professors are great about being kind and understanding if you’re having a bad mental health day,” said emergency services management major and senior Rebekah Viverette.
But while the University can help provide resources for students, it’s ultimately up to the students themselves to put in the work.
“I would say the biggest thing is just being self-aware,” Maurer said. “Students should develop a kind of understanding or have a good sense of self-awareness. Just knowing when things tend to get worse or better for themselves. And so just really kind of that self-care piece, and taking care of themselves where they can.”
Everyone at Anderson University is committed to being the best supporter they can for students and their mental health. And when the University, faculty, and students are all working together, a brighter future full of happier, healthier students can be achieved.
“I think we try to see each student as an individual and try to listen not only to what they say, but what they mean by what they say because sometimes it’s not the same thing,” Dr. King said. “And at the end of the day, my goal is to help the student leave the office a little bit better than when they came in–and to help the University continue to be a place where students live healthier lives, body, mind, and soul.”