A Culture of Cura Personalis
The Jesuit concept of “caring for the whole person” informs and inspires Saint Louis University to prioritize the well-being of the whole community.
College is often described as the best four years of your life. A heady time to learn and grow, to experience and experiment, to “find yourself” and forge your future. But over the last decade — to say nothing of the last few years, especially — college has been anything but the best four years for a lot of people.
Campuses across the country have noticed an alarming increase in anxiety, depression and suicide among students — and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between fall 2019 and spring 2020, the Healthy Minds Network and the American College Health Association found that depression in college students rose from 36% to 41%, and the percentage who said mental health affected their academic performance increased by nearly 9%, to 31%. In June 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds seriously contemplated suicide. Texas A&M University later reported that 71% of college students experienced increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic.
Saint Louis University hasn’t been immune to any of this. After a very difficult few years, the University has responded with sustained care and support, and renewed its commitment to a campus culture of well-being.
“The challenges our students have faced, and our community has faced here at SLU, are unfortunately not unique to the greater landscape within higher education,” said Dr. Sarah Cunningham, SLU’s vice president for student development. “But we have known that this work is a priority, and we’re continuing to elevate and enhance our commitment to student well-being.”
Accepting the Mission
The University’s Jesuit tradition calls for care and development of the whole person. So, a well-rounded approach has always been characteristic of a SLU education.
“This concept of cura personalis — how the mind, body and spirit help to make up the whole person — that’s central to our mission. We know that when one of those is out of balance, it impacts everything else,” Eric Anderson (Grad CSB ’04) said.
Anderson has worked in campus recreation at SLU since 1999.
“We’ve been doing wellness for a long time,” he said. “But in the last three years or so, there’s been a shift from using the term ‘wellness’ to ‘well-being.’ The goal for well-being is broader: not just the individual, but also the community.”
This means not just offering wellness resources — such as the Student Health Center and the 120,000-square-foot Simon Recreation Center — but also considering how the University can provide comprehensive support to all in the community.
Staff from Student Development, the Dean of Students Office, the University Counseling Center, Housing and Residence Life, the Eckelkamp Center for Campus Ministry and other divisions have coordinated multiple points of response and care.
“The goal is for students to flourish. But what does that mean?” Cunningham asked. “If they graduate in four years but with significant anxiety, huge debt and a question around their own confidence, that’s not success. If our students are going to go set the world on fire, we need to position them to have the confidence and the resources and the ability to take care of themselves to actually do that.”
A (Task) Force for Good
That broader perspective is the focus of Anderson’s current position; he became the University’s first assistant vice president for student well-being in August 2021.
“This new position showcases the University’s dedication to supporting student well-being in a holistic and comprehensive way,” Cunningham said. “Eric’s ability to be a nimble, collaborative and compassionate leader makes him the best person to help us shape the future of student well-being at SLU.”
In addition to making several strategic leadership hires over the past year, Anderson co-chaired the Student Well-being Task Force.
The task force convened in the fall of 2021. Co-chaired by Dr. Ellen Barnidge (Grad PH ’05, ’08), interim dean and associate professor in the College for Public Health and Social Justice, the group comprised about 30 people across the University who spent the last academic year assessing SLU’s well-being environment and developing recommendations to improve it.
In addition to reviewing the resources SLU already had and considering data, trends and best practices, the task force conducted approximately 20 listening sessions with stakeholders across the University.
“We were able to engage the community in ways that were inclusive and also provided the opportunity to hear a lot of different perspectives,” Anderson said.
After all that input, the task force released a draft set of strategic priorities and proposed actions.
“We tried to make recommendations that were not only aspirational but inspirational,” he said. “Instead of creating a specific to-do list, we challenged everyone to think about well-being as a core piece of their job in ways that they can prioritize and hopefully roll out. That will look different for different units and areas of expertise.”
The entire SLU community then had a chance to weigh in through an online survey. Anderson said that more than 80% of the responses were overwhelmingly positive.
“Part of the brilliance of what Eric and Ellen did was they created a space for our expertise from campus to really be highlighted,” Cunningham said. “We don’t need to go out and buy modules and hire lots of people because we’ve got the talent here. Now, it’s just figuring out how to leverage it.”
Even before the task force released its draft report, the University prioritized campus well-being. Many of these changes were prompted by the ongoing realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As difficult as this past year has been, there’s been such support across the institution. There are a lot of good things going on,” Anderson said.
The University Counseling Center (UCC) has seen increased service demand. During the 2020-21 school year, the number of appointments (including virtual ones) skyrocketed to more than 5,000. Although that number dropped over the last year, the UCC still provides more counseling appointments than in pre-pandemic years.
To adjust to the student body’s needs, the UCC looked at its systems and availability. They added several counselors. They began offering a 24-7 triage line (via an outside telehealth company) so that students can access care anytime they need it. The staff also started paying more attention to the particular needs of the students they serve, including graduate, medical and law students.
“How do we make it more convenient for students to have services nearby, particularly if they spend a good portion of their time at one of our other campuses?” Anderson said.
“We also wanted to think expansively around what well-being is for different domains,” Knieba Jones-Johnson, director of the UCC, said. “Whose voices are we not paying attention to? Who are the historically excluded groups of students that, because of race, religion, identity, have been ignored and are suffering because of it?”
On its website, the UCC has specific lists of mental health resources for students of color and LGBTQIA students. Jones-Johnson is working with SLU’s Division of Diversity and Innovative Community Engagement (DICE) to review how the counseling center responds to issues related to accessibility and disability.
The center started six student support groups in the spring, including around the unique needs of athletes, “adulting,” relationships, and stress reduction and anxiety management.
In Wuller Hall, where counseling sessions are held, the UCC is creating a sensory/creative arts space and possibly spaces for expressive arts therapy and horticulture therapy.
Jones-Johnson said, “We’re just looking at all different ways to heal, really.”
The UCC partnered with librarians from Pius XII Memorial Library to feature wellness books that students can check out. The shelf is located near the library’s Wellness Space, a comfortable relaxation area sponsored by the Student Government Association. Jones-Johnson would love to replicate similar spaces in the residence halls.
For those students who might be struggling but don’t need clinical help, the University has arranged for wellness coaching from a group called ComPsych.
“That would be for somebody who’s a little overwhelmed and not quite sure the strategy on how to prepare for finals, or someone dealing with a disappointment — ‘I didn’t get elected president of my student organization’ — but who doesn’t need ongoing counseling,” Cunningham said.
The UCC must be doing something right; SLU ranked No. 21 on Princeton Review’s 2023 list of colleges and universities with the best student support and counseling services.
Letting Off Steam
In the spring of 2021, the academic schedule was compressed due to COVID-19 but included “mental health days” throughout the semester instead of a weeklong spring break. SLU Provost Dr. Mike Lewis explained in a message to the University community: “We need to give all students the necessary time and space to focus on their mental health during a compressed semester.”
The following fall, Lewis announced an impromptu mental health day to encourage undergraduates to take a break from classes and connect over University-sponsored activities such as yoga, an Examen walk, ice cream and more. The day was an extended version of previous pre-exam activities that featured pop-up petting zoos with therapy dogs and other animals, cookies with SLU President Dr. Fred P. Pestello and other events. There would be several more wellness days during the 2021-22 year, and similar days were added to the calendar for this academic year. Organizers continued to adapt the agenda based on student feedback.
“You have to be able to slow down to develop the capacity for resilience,” Jones-Johnson said.
“There’s academic demand and rigor, but the result of that can be poor mental health and well-being. How do we resolve that?” she asked. “We allow and permit — and actually, not just allow and permit, but encourage and promote — rest, recuperation and rejuvenation.”
Dr. Katie Heiden-Rootes (Med ’14), associate professor in the Medical Family Therapy Program, director of clinical services for the Center for Counseling and Family Therapy and assistant vice president for research in the Division of Diversity and Innovative Community Engagement, agreed.
“But those things are not a panacea,” she said. “It’s like when you pull off a valve and let steam out, but then you put it back on. Wellness days are good for letting off steam, but they don’t remove the pressure on our students.”
She suggested a change in the way faculty relate to students.
“We need to create an environment in which students feel supported and seen on an interpersonal level. That requires more work than wellness days,” she said.
“I try to see my students who start to struggle not as an indicator of their inability to achieve, but that something is happening in their world that is making this difficult,” Heiden-Rootes said. “It’s important to get to know students as people beyond their classroom performance.”
Looking Out, Reaching Out
As professors get to know their students beyond the classroom, it’s good to be aware of what diminished mental health looks like. Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) training helps.
This one-day training teaches individuals how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance-use disorders.
“Think about American Red Cross CPR and first aid training,” Anderson said. “It’s like that, but for mental health issues.”
Tori Harwood, whose department reports to Anderson, is SLU’s MHFA coordinator. She was certified in the spring of 2021 to teach the course, as were three other SLU staff members. A grant from the National Council for Mental Well-Being provided for the certification of several more instructors this year.
We’re a broader community of folks that might have varying levels of awareness and understanding, but we need to create a community of care."Eric Anderson, assistant vice president for student well-being
The goal is for all faculty, staff and students to be able to take the MHFA training. To date, more than 150 faculty and staff, and close to 200 students have been trained.
“We’re a broader community of folks that might have varying levels of awareness and understanding, but we need to create a community of care,” Anderson said.
“It’s all part of building resilient Billikens,” Harwood said.
Harwood’s job also involves prevention and outreach activities, which include educating students about alcohol and other drugs, stress management and self-care, and sexual assault and suicide prevention. She partners with Billikens After Dark, which sponsors late-night, alcohol-free alternative programming; fraternities and sororities; and other student organizations.
She also leads the Health Education Action Team (HEAT), a group of students passionate about health and wellness, who plan and implement “fun programming with a side of education.”
“Students want to listen to students,” Harwood said. “They take what the HEAT supervisors tell them better than if I were to say, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t drink so much.’ It seems to come across better from someone their age who has been through the same experience.”
That sentiment is echoed in the words and work of Allison Twohig, a junior nursing major and director of The Green Bandana Project. The student organization is SLU’s chapter of the national Bandana Project, which encourages solidarity around mental health issues. By wearing a green bandana, a student identifies as an advocate, someone who could be approached for help and resources.
“I got involved because it just seemed like a very simple thing. Now we have like 700 bandanas on campus,” Twohig said. “That’s 700-plus students showing they care about mental health.”
Twohig’s leadership earned her a 2022 Billiken Rising Star Award and the ear of the administration: She was asked to be one of a select few students on the Student Well-being Task Force.
The Long View
The strategic and programmatic work of the task force continues to progress, but there will always be the need to take the well-being pulse of campus. Becoming a JED Campus helps the University evaluate its well-being initiatives.
The Jed Foundation (JED) is a nonprofit organization that works to protect emotional health and prevents suicide in adolescents and young adults. Its JED Campus program helps schools develop new programs, policies and systems that build upon existing mental health, substance misuse and suicide prevention efforts. The four-year program has attracted nearly 400 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Princeton and New York universities, and Jesuit universities such as Marquette and Xavier.
“It is a strategic relationship for an institution that says, we’ve been doing all of these things, and we want to make sure there’s nothing we’ve missed,” Cunningham said.
SLU is part of JED’s fall 2022 cohort. The first year began with the launch of the Healthy Minds Study on campus. The results will inform a strategic plan for student mental health and suicide prevention. As the University implements that plan, it has access to data from all the participating schools, as well as meetings with the rest of the cohort. In year four, SLU will complete the Healthy Minds Study again, providing a longitudinal look at campus well-being.
Even as we struggle with the most difficult circumstances, the SLU community continues to inspire with its love, resilience and grace."Dr. Fred P. Pestello, Saint Louis University President
At this point — as students still live amid what Jones-Johnson called “a huge nexus of causation” — it’s clear that the University must implement both small and big changes to enhance well-being on campus. And the administration, staff and faculty agree that they will do whatever it takes.
“We all have to do the work and make sure this is a place that’s thriving,” Harwood said. “And it has to be systemic change. We can’t think programming alone is going to work.”
Pestello has faith.
“Even as we struggle with the most difficult circumstances, the SLU community continues to inspire with its love, resilience and grace,” he said. “We will continue to care for one another, embrace our higher purpose and live our mission.”
Universitas, the award-winning alumni magazine of Saint Louis University, is distributed to SLU alumni, parents and benefactors around the world. The magazine includes campus news, feature stories, alumni profiles and class notes, and has a circulation of 132,265.