Virginia’s Secretary of Health and Human Resources John E. Littel and Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera launched their statewide listening tour on mental health at William & Mary’s campus Sunday.
Guidera and Littel, who also serves as W&M’s rector, participated in a roundtable discussion between students and campus administrators, including W&M President Katherine Rowe, who is leading a taskforce on mental health for the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s Council of Presidents.
“The taskforce is focused on two dimensions: prevention and treatment,” Rowe said at the start of the roundtable. “We are first interested in finding out what’s going really well and figuring out how we can scale it. Next, we need to think about new ways of addressing the challenges that students, staff, faculty, administrators, our neighbors and our alumni are experiencing.”
Prior to the conversation, the secretaries and university administrators participated in the Out of the Darkness campus walk, sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and organized by the W&M chapter of Alpha Tau Omega.
The secretaries then toured William & Mary’s McLeod Tyler Wellness Center, which was dedicated in 2018, and brought together under one roof William & Mary’s Office of Health Promotion, Counseling Center, Health Center, the Center for Mindfulness and Authentic Excellence and Campus Recreation’s wellness programing. The goal of the design was to foster closer collaboration between the offices and offer students a chance to learn about the multiple dimensions of wellness.
While speaking at this year’s William & Mary’s Charter Day ceremony, Virginia’s newly inaugurated Governor Glenn Youngkin instructed the two secretaries to work with college presidents to find ways to “better serve the mental health care needs of our students, of our faculty and our administrators across Virginia.” Littel said that charge has since broadened to include K-12 and the secretaries will be holding similar listening sessions at schools and universities across the Commonwealth.
“I was really interested and excited to start our work for the state here at William & Mary,” Littel told the students during the roundtable discussion. “What we have to get to is a societal change, where people are comfortable with these kinds of conversations, where they know how to ask for help and connect with others. This is a great community, but we have critical work to do to make sure that in every group there are people like you who are thinking about others the way that you all do.”
All students participating in the discussion were part of the university’s Wellness Ambassador program, which includes roughly 75 students who assist various departments within W&M’s McLeod Tyler Wellness Center in a variety of ways, from helping to create programming to manning events. They also commit to be cultural ambassadors around issues of mental health & wellness.
The secretaries listened and took notes as the students explained common themes of their experiences, from combatting the glorification of stress culture to the challenge of getting information about the university’s range of mental & health wellness resources to those who most need it.
“We are here to learn from you,” said Guidera. “There is nothing more important than having Virginia be a vibrant place to live and to be successful, and we do that by investing in people and wellness. That is right at the core of everything, the quality of individual life and community life.”
Max Beers ’24, a student wellness ambassador, member of the Tribe club hockey team and history major, said his goal is to make wellness fun and change the relationship many students have with stress and success.
“It’s upsetting to me that people at this campus seem to think that success is not defined by what you do that makes you happy, but what you do that makes you stressed,” Beers said. “We have to figure out some way we can try and shift that.”
Guidera explained that the listening tour will continue for the next six months, ending with a summit in the fall, designed with the goal of producing a set of policy recommendations that will be presented during the next legislative session in January.
“We’re serious about addressing the things we have discussed and about learning from the excellent work going on here,” she said.
“The work that you are doing is really critical,” Littel added, addressing the students. “I deeply appreciate you spending time with us and with your classmates. I’ve also just noticed that every single one of you has a major that is in my secretariate, so please consider state government. We need people who think like you.”
Adrienne Berard, Assistant Director for Research, News & Analytics