William & Mary’s integrated approach to health and wellness is a sought-after model of best practices, thanks to nationally respected leaders including Associate Vice President for Health and Wellness Kelly Crace and his colleagues as well as state-of-the-art facilities such as the McLeod Tyler Wellness Center.
In 2022, W&M was the first university in the nation designated a “Healthy Campus” by the American College Health Association’s new Healthy Campus Framework. ACHA evaluates infrastructure; health promotion, prevention, and intervention; access; diversity, equity and inclusion integration and veterans’ transition.
A key to progress, officials agree, is close collaboration across K-12 and higher education. To that end, William & Mary worked with Virginia’s secretaries of health and education to host a summit March 29 convened by Governor Glenn Youngkin. The event, which included hundreds of administrators and health professionals throughout the state, comes at the end of a listening tour by state officials that kicked off at W&M last year.
“What an exceptional opportunity to have William & Mary see this come full circle, from being the first on the secretaries’ listening tour to convening a gathering to learn from the collective wisdom of those on the front lines working with student mental health every day,” said Crace, who also serves as director of the Center for Mindfulness and Authentic Excellence. “We wanted to provide a forum that brought voice to what they’re seeing, why they’re seeing it, what they’re doing about it, what’s been effective and what they need to be more effective.”
The “Addressing Mental Health in our Schools and on our Campuses” summit aimed to draw on the collective wisdom of the participants to help bolster and shape next steps in Youngkin’s “Right Help, Right Now” behavioral health plan. Communication, resources, training, policy changes and staffing are just a few of the things needed for Virginia’s schools to address the state’s mental health crisis, officials said.
“The plan has a lot of momentum behind it, but it is not a light switch or a magic wand – it is a multi-year effort in order to transform a system that is not working for Virginians the way it needs to be,” said Youngkin. “So today’s session is not the culmination of work but it is another critical stepping stone to further refine our approach to make it the best.”
W&M President Katherine A. Rowe noted the timeliness of the statewide summit. Anxiety and depression are up across all age levels following the pandemic, she said.
“When it comes to children and young adults, we have a critical role as educators that we did not have 10, 20, even five years ago, which is to teach them how to live in healthy ways with these levels of anxiety and depression in the population,” Rowe said.
Collaboration will be key to any progress, added Rowe, along with an approach to challenges that starts with the question, “How might we … ?”
“We need to be cultivating solutions in a different way, a way that’s going to require an entrepreneurial mindset, resourcefulness, quickly testing new solutions, being open to the data, information and feedback from our communities,” said Rowe.
Listening to the ‘front lines’
Soon after Youngkin took office, the state experienced several tragedies, including a mass shooting at Bridgewater College. Before developing a plan to address behavioral health issues within schools, Youngkin tasked Secretary of Health and Human Resources John E. Littel and Secretary of Education Aimee Rogstad Guidera with conducting a listening tour around the state.
“What we heard were great ideas, great initiatives that were going on, but not a lot of interaction with other schools,” said Littel, a member of the W&M Board of Visitors and former rector.
“It really felt like this (summit) was a great opportunity to highlight some of the best practices that we saw and also talk about things that we could do to be more creative, ways that the state can be helpful, as well as ways that you all can work together.”
Guidera noted that education and mental health are the governor’s top priorities.
“The governor’s focus is on best in class – how to be the best place to learn and educate people – and he knows we cannot meet that goal of having the greatest educational system unless we also know that we’re making sure that our students have a vibrant, safe learning environment to be able to excel,” she said. “And so this work matters so much, and the work that you do every day matters.”
First Lady of Virginia Suzanne Youngkin implored the summit’s participants to engage with her office as she looks to promote wellbeing in the Commonwealth and address issues such as substance abuse. She recalled visiting W&M’s McLeod Tyler Wellness Center last year and being inspired by what she learned and the people she met.
“Thank you for being on the cutting edge amongst our universities and schools in doing what is needed and what is appropriate for your students and your faculty and your community,” she said. “So proud of what you’re doing here.”
Pursuit of calm
Crace started the summit with a talk about “The Pursuit of Calm” at William & Mary.
“Here’s our whole approach: We’re going to move from fear-based excellence to authentic excellence, to where the definition of success is the engagement in things that matter to us in a healthy, relational, sensitive way,” said Crace. “And when the world gives us a reward for that, we celebrate that as a great day, not the new standard. And when the world beats us up for that we focus on one thing: healthy self-care and support.
“All of you are doing that at some level on your campus or in your agency. Let’s talk about how that’s being done and let’s learn from each other.”
Throughout the day, participants did just that by engaging in roundtable discussions and sharing their findings with the full group. During that sharing session, students, administrators and others from universities, community colleges and K-12 schools advocated for what they thought was most needed.
Some of the needs they identified were loan forgiveness for counseling students to increase interest in mental health careers, creating mental health first aid training for everyone and encouraging and empowering students to take action as bystanders.
As the summit drew to an end, Guidera emphasized the importance of turning what was learned from the day into action, informing decisions that lead to better outcomes for the state’s students.
“I believe that we cannot meet our shared goal of having a world-class education system here in Virginia from early learning all the way through secondary unless we also are committed to making sure that every Virginia student is not just receiving a world-class quality academic education, but it has to be done in an environment that is safe, that is vibrant and that is healthy,” Guidera said.
“That’s the work that you all are doing and that we’re going to do together.”
Erin Jay, Senior Associate Director of University News