Virginia Tech's recreational sports department applied a different strategy than usual to its freshmen orientation in August.
"Previously, we gave students information we wanted them to know right then — who we are, what we do," says Ali Cross, VT's director of recreational sports. "Now, we recognize that students are smart and already know that. Instead, we welcome them by explaining the importance of wellbeing, what it looks like and why it's important to them. I'm hoping that message will still stick with them for a long time."
This is the first in a series of articles about integrated health and wellbeing on college and university campuses. The November/December issue will feature examples of effective cross-departmental collaboration and partnerships.
Central to VT's overall message is that recreational sports isn't the only entity on campus engaged in enhancing student health and wellbeing. In 2005, the university committed to an integrated approach by creating a Health and Wellness unit that includes five high-profile departments: Recreational Sports, the Cook Counseling Center, the Schiffert Health Center, Services for Students with Disabilities and Hokie Wellness. Four of those five are housed in McComas Hall, which is centrally located on campus.
"It seems like such a simple thing, but it has made all the difference for us," Cross says, adding that Recreational Sports now is reaching out to the university's approximately 600 academic advisors regarding ways to incorporate the concepts of health and wellbeing into even more facets of students' lives — including talking with students about the connections between exercise and mental health, and wellbeing and academic performance.
"Students are asking more questions about what they need to do to be more successful," Cross says. "This information is important for them to have."
'Where we need to be going'
Virginia Tech's lead has been followed, to varying degrees, by colleges and universities around the country.
Consider this: Last fall, the American Psychological Association reported a 30 percent increase in college students seeking appointments at counseling centers between the 2009-10 and 2014-15 academic years, even though student enrollment grew by only 5 percent during that time. More than 60 percent of them reported anxiety, while 49 percent reported depression and 45 percent reported stress.
"I think most people believe this is where we need to be going in higher education," says George Brown, assistant vice provost and director of university recreation and wellness at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. "No department really owns health and wellbeing as a campus entity, but sports and recreation has a natural connection that puts us in a unique position. It would be disingenuous for us to think students will be globally responsible citizens when they graduate if we haven't taken care of them over the past four or five years."
Brown served as co-chair of NIRSA's Health and Wellbeing Commission, which was established in 2012 to promote awareness of ways in which recreation programs contribute to more than just students' physical wellness by making a strong impact on all dimensions of their wellbeing — including social, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and environmental aspects, as well.
In 2016, the commission's work transitioned to NIRSA's communities of practice, an online portal that allows members to access relevant information and resources about health and wellbeing.
At Minnesota, recreation officials have extended their integrated approach to health and wellbeing to such groups as library employees and university police. Libraries, for example, employ a large percentage of students, many of whom frequently interact with fellow students.
Beginning in October, the university will pilot a program in which library professional staff members will undergo bystander intervention training to help empower them to identify students who might be struggling with health and wellbeing issues, according to Brown, who co-presented in a panel session called "Building a Culture of Health and Wellbeing: A Strategic Discussion for Campus Recreation Directors" at the NIRSA 2018 annual conference in Denver in March.
Additionally, an effort is underway to bring campus police officers into recreation buildings to work out among students and offer giveaways in the lobby to remove what appears to be increasing guardedness toward law enforcement on campus, Brown says.
Even on smaller campuses, where recreation administrators might only have resources available for intramurals and fitness classes, Brown sees integration opportunities. "If you're offering programs that help students learn about respect, winning and losing, sportsmanship and relationships, then guess what? You're exhibiting health and wellbeing," he says.
Among the terms NIRSA and its member schools embrace when discussing integrated health and wellbeing is "upstream" — using the image of a person who fell into a river and is helplessly swept downstream with his or her own mental, physical or social crises. "Upstream" thinking acknowledges those currently struggling but also focuses on preventing issues that create those crises. This preventive approach, NIRSA officials say, can help students "thrive upstream" without ever falling into the river in the first place, to the health benefit of society at large.
"Campus recreation professionals see a lot of students in crisis," Brown says. "Some arrive in crisis. What can we do to promote a greater sense of prevention?"
'Challenging but worthwhile'
As part of the overall effort to integrate health and wellbeing practices on campuses, NIRSA is teaming with architects of college recreation facilities to educate administrators about the WELL Building Standard®.
Launched in 2014 after years of research and development, the standard is a performance-based system similar to LEED that measures, certifies and monitors features of a building environment that impact health and wellbeing through air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, physical comfort and peace of mind.
Though technically four years old, the concept remains on the cutting edge. "I'm not aware of any recreation building having been built to the WELL Standard at this time," indicates Lynn Reda, a principal at Hughes Group Architects in Sterling, Va., who will present a seminar about the standard with fellow Hughes Group principal Gavin Myers at November's Athletic Business Show in New Orleans and NIRSA's Recreation Facilities Institute in Miami in December.
A rigid set of compliance requirements, including certain pre-existing air- and water-quality conditions over which many campus communities have no control, has limited the standard's application. But that doesn't mean facility operators shouldn't pay attention.
"This is fertile ground right now. WELL is a challenging but worthwhile standard, and aspects of it can be utilized as discussion points," says Myers, pointing toward the Gallogly Recreation and Wellness Center at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, which took an integrated approach to health and wellbeing while considering elements of WELL in the design process.
The center consolidates campus clinical health, counseling services and recreation programs into one integrated facility, allowing for a multi-dimensional approach to wellbeing. This approach is evident in the design, which includes a shared front entrance, plentiful natural light, holistic material selection, and a balance of active and contemplative spaces that empower student wellbeing.
As integrated health and wellbeing initiatives evolve, so will design of the spaces that house them. And everyone has a role to play in that process, according to VT's Cross.
"Anybody who is interacting with students can see the stress they're under and appreciate the value of wellbeing," she says. "That's where we're all aligned. We're all positioned to help."
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Integrated approaches to health and wellbeing" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.