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Creating a New Wellness Space for Students

Saint Louis University School of Medicine (SLU SOM) students are as vulnerable to depression and burnout as any population, but, with a lead gift from Susan Willman, M.D., (SOM '82), students will soon have a new space on campus to support mental health and emotional well-being. 

A blueprint that sketches out the various locations of the new wellness space for med students

Studies have shown that medical students and professionals experience a high rate of depression and anxiety. The demands on medical professionals to care for others over caring for themselves, exaggerated by workplace pressures, lead many into isolation and shame of their depression and anxiety. 

Mental illness can be treated, interventions are effective, and suicide prevention is possible.

A Personal Connection to Mental Health 

For Dr. Willman, supporting the creation of this space was a profoundly personal decision. She knows the pain of losing a sibling to suicide, and Willman herself has battled depression her entire life, and she believes she would not be here today if not for medical intervention.

"I have such a strong and willful personality that many people would be shocked to hear that I suffer from depression," Willman says. She has experienced the cultural bias of service and sacrifice over self but now sees that the two are not mutually exclusive. She acknowledges that with help, "I have overcome it, and I have had a successful career."

Willman hopes her lead gift will inspire others to support the cost of creating a new approach to wellness at SLU SOM that will help remove the shame and stigma of mental illness – and empower those who need help to seek care.

Inspired by Action

In 2012, while on campus for her 30th medical school reunion, Willman attended a presentation about student mental health that highlighted a study that found that 25 percent of medical students suffer from depression and anxiety. 

For Willman, that lecture emphasized the importance of creating safe, nurturing spaces for students to decompress—outside of the rigors of medical school. She knew the burnout of traditional medical school training—patient care had priority, while sleep and nutrition were not valued as necessary components for learning. Willman also knew that SLU SOM has been a leader in addressing wellness for its students, dating back to 2011 when curriculum changes were made to adopt a pass/fail model. She emphasizes more should be done – especially for students with learning disabilities and financial stress

She and Lauren Schwarz, Ph.D., assistant dean of student affairs, reviewed a wish list of items to benefit the wellness of the medical school population. "At the top of the list was a request for a quiet gathering place," said Willman, "the idea of a student space is the cornerstone necessary to bring the other needs to life—access to therapy services, stress reduction training, student wellness retreats, and wellness programs."

A New Chapter—Focus on Wellness

SLU SOM has been a leader in addressing wellness for its students. To accommodate an atmosphere focused on student well-being, the school began providing access to a mental health professional and assisting students with learning specialists and career advisors.

Additionally, Willman's financial contributions have allowed SLU SOM to establish the Student and Resident Wellness Fund. She hopes this fund will help students care for their wellness—and access the resources and community support they need. "I want medical students to be empowered," she shares. "I want to put taking care of yourself mentally and physically on the same level—they're equally important." 

The Vision

According to Lauren Schwarz, Ph.D., "The space will change how the school supports students. It is significant that someone from outside recognizes the gravity of this stressful career and that students need support."

The development of the Wellness Space is in collaboration with students; they have conceptualized this space to provide critical components to meet the wellness needs of medical students. 

With Willman's gift, the new wellness space will undergo development in the Caroline Building at the School of Medicine, adjacent to Campus Ministry and near counseling services. 

Ultimately, Willman hopes the space will bring students together: "Medicine is a demanding career. To serve others, we must take care of ourselves. In my most vulnerable times, I was alone. Being able to connect with other people and being heard is huge—and that is exactly what the space is going to do." 

Willman sees the new student safe space as a critical step to overhauling SLU SOM's approach to student wellness. Schwarz with SLU SOM has developed an umbrella concept for wellness called the Student Mental Health Initiative to further support student wellness, including psychiatry representation, greater access to therapy services, wellness screenings, mindfulness-based stress reduction wellness programs, and mental health first aid training.

To learn more about how you can join Dr. Susan Willman and SLU SOM in the effort to support medical students and resident health via the Student and Resident Wellness Fund, please contact Michelle Cohen, 314-977-8723,