A few weeks ago, I joined dozens of students and administrators in an interactive workshop with Columbia students’ Mental Health Task Force, co-sponsored by the Office of University Life. It was two hours of focused discussion and listening, and what I heard from participants resonated with me as an opportunity.
Along with the stress that many Columbia students feel so intensely, there is also a strong desire to respond to mental health challenges and achieve greater well-being—together. Many students shared stories of their own struggles—feeling intimidated, dealing with anxiety, failing in various ways, and going through painful times—but also of their resilience and discovering their own pathways to support and strength.
It was striking to me how many students also talked about wanting more ways to share these stories with the community. No one underestimates the challenge of addressing deeply complex realities—anxiety, depression, addiction, and stigma—and the factors that contribute to them. At the same time, the capacity to respond to these challenges was palpable that night and is apparent every day at Columbia.
It is, to be sure, a struggle to tap the collective force of Columbia’s highly motivated and talented community to change the stress culture narrative, especially when school—and living in New York City—truly can be stressful. So the question might be: How do we also recognize and strengthen the support culture that is such a strong part of our community?
These are dilemmas that administrators, faculty, and students alike wrestle with—as individuals and institutionally. A recent study of 112 student affairs leaders and university presidents affirms what is on the minds of many here: that mental health is the No. 1 concern on campuses nationwide (diversity and inclusion is the second).
As I shared in February, a meaningful response to student mental health needs requires excellence in many ways—service provision; collaboration among students, faculty, and administrators; resources dedicated to awareness and a supportive environment; and continuous research to seek effective ways to intervene and provide support. An important part of this also involves understanding where we are now and where we would like to be. This has already begun with work that Dean Valentini is leading with the Jed Foundation to assess and enhance health and wellness policies, programming, services, and outreach for undergraduate students.
We are fortunate, too, that Columbia already offers many services and resources and that efforts are ongoing to address space allocation that is so important to student life. Yet, there is also a desire for more. We hear this.
As we continue to examine what else can be done, we are also beginning to take steps, together with campus partners and student leaders, in direct response to requests for more resources and more opportunities for relaxation. And so, inspired and encouraged by many conversations across the University, the Office of University Life and partners across campus introduce: Wellness Days @Columbia.
During Wellness Days, which this semester will begin on April 10, students can learn more about anxiety at Anxiety: Friend or Foe? with an expert Columbia faculty member, take part in an interactive workshop on how to help a friend, practice yoga and meditation, and more. Students will also be invited to try an online tutorial about how to support friends in distress and connect them to campus resources.
Many of these are offered throughout the year, but concentrating them over several days, with co-sponsorship from many student organizations and student government as well as campus partners, including Columbia Health, Columbia University Medical Center Student Health Service, Columbia Athletics, Columbia Libraries, the Office of the University Chaplain, and Undergraduate Student Life, is intentional. Wellness Days @Columbia are for coming together to raise awareness, to support each other, and to relax and unwind. Wellness Days coincide with the student-led random acts of kindness from the Student Wellness Project all week.
There will also be a special AWAKENING OUR DEMOCRACY at CUMC focused on mental health on Wednesday, April 12, at noon (watch online if you can’t make it); a five-hour afternoon “Study Break @ CU” on the South Lawn in front of Butler Library on Thursday, April 13; and a Saturday afternoon student-led “Out of the Darkness” community walk to support suicide prevention.
We know that community wellness does not happen in a matter of days. It requires a sustained and mutually upheld ethic of care, often through great challenges. “Self-care” is easy to say, but harder for many of us to do, and we can start there, even as we continue work on so many other fronts. We have, both individually and collectively, tremendous ability to look out and care for each other. Let’s keep looking and helping, wherever and whenever we can.
Suzanne B. Goldberg is executive vice president for University Life and the Herbert and Doris Wechsler clinical professor of law at Columbia Law School, where she also directs the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law.