Stories of Innovation: Flourish – Addressing Mental Health Needs in the Classroom

Dr. Kim Sommers, PsyD, LP and Dr. Lindsay Murn, PhD, LPMinnesota State University, Mankato

On Twitter and Instagram, memes and jokes about therapy and counseling have gone viral. Of course, this is not the same as mental health and psychological support, but it does mark that the conversation around mental health is changing.

Me: I've been scared of the Backstreet Boys my whole life Therapist: Tell me why Me: "screams* Text Product Job Conversation

We are psychologists working in the Counseling Center at Minnesota State University, Mankato and our work is typically done behind closed doors (or recently, on a secure video call) with individual students who choose to address their mental health concerns in a formal way. However, we know mental health needs are on the rise and we are not able to reach all students through traditional counseling services.

In fact, many students who are struggling do not seek support from any campus resources. We often talked about how to reach those students “falling through the cracks,” and those students who may leave school due to their mental health concerns. We realized that we had to get creative.

We were inspired by a New York Times article about the college wellness programming at Boston University’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation (BUCPR) to think outside of the traditional framework of psychotherapy to create a course that would support students whose mental health concerns have negatively impacted their academic performance and progress. We applied for an Educational Innovations grant through the Shark Tank Open to support the research, development, and teaching of a class that would combine academic skills instruction with wellness coping strategies. We were excited about the possibility and surprised and anxious when we got the grant. Suddenly, we had to make this dream a reality!

Beginning in the early curriculum development phase of this class, we were lucky to form a wonderful partnership with the BUCPR program. They provided guidance through Zoom meetings and sharing of materials, and allowed us to adapt their version of a similar class. In turn, we provided BUCPR with feedback on the lessons and course materials, and we suggested modifications for implementing the curriculum at a regionally and culturally different university. The result of this partnership became: SOWK001: LEAD-Mankato: Building Academic and Wellness Skills.

Now came time to offer this class in the Spring of 2019. Every Tuesday evening, we and 16 students spent 90 minutes together teaching and learning an academic skill and a wellness skill that complemented each other. For example, we provided instruction on time management and procrastination one week and resilience and test-taking strategies the next. One of our innovations is to turn away from technology and focus on personal, face-to-face instruction and small and large group discussion. We joke around about being “old school” by using the dry erase board and paper handouts.

Funding from the grant allowed us to provide materials and opportunities not typical of a traditional college course. Instead of textbook and powerpoints, we purchased 3-ring binders, dividers, and folders. We gave each student with their own “doodle planner” to practice implementing the new time management strategies learned and approaching their other classes with improved organization. We focused on adapting the course material to fit with what the students brought in. In the session about procrastination, the entire class ended up helping a fellow student problem-solve a concern about a medical bill that they had been avoiding. Another student sought support from the class to address their avoidance of a parent and family stress.

The Educational Innovations grant allowed us to create some opportunities outside of the classroom. We hosted a “Mind-Body Event” for the students. We collaboratively hosted this with our Campus Recreation Program Coordinator, Carly Hopper, who guided our students through mindfulness and meditative yoga practices. We were able to give out water bottles for fruit-infused water. We were able to provide materials to create calming bottles which help with stress and provided an opportunity to demonstrate teach-to-learn strategies for academic success.

DIY calming bottles made by students.

Our primary goal is to help students increase their academic self-efficacy by finding success in our classroom, and transferring that success to their more academically-rigorous courses. Student feedback has been consistently positive and has proved that this course is providing the kind of instruction that is immediately beneficial to their lives. One student noted that it was most helpful to learn “what kind of learner am I. I used to read a lot [and not] understand most of what I read, but then I kinda changed my strategies and it actually worked on my biology test.” Another student noted that they “feel more confident in my ability to pass classes and still have fun in my everyday life!” Yet another shared that they “think learning how to manage my stress has been huge! I feel better overall.”

“Learning how to manage my stress has been huge! I feel better overall.”

We have now taught the class twice as an auxiliary course through the Department of Social Work. We loved teaching this class and are currently in the process of putting the course through the Curriculum Design System – with a new name: WELL 100. Focusing on collegiate wellness is essential for promoting learning, self-efficacy, and retention. With the help of the Educational Innovations grant, LEAD-Mankato was an innovative way to bring mental health interventions directly to the college classroom. With continued and expanded offerings of WELL 100, we can help even more Minnesota State students learn how to better manage their mental health and wellness concerns while remaining motivated, engaged, and goal-oriented during their college careers.

With the recent shifts to remote learning due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the ingenuity needed to develop this course is being activated once again. BUCPR transitioned their LEAD-BU classes to a synchronous online format with great success, and we are confident that WELL 100 can do the same. Maintaining physical distance yet remaining socially and academically engaged are the core principles of this curriculum. And as we look toward the future, we plan to continue teaching WELL 100 and to expand it by training other Minnesota State University, Mankato faculty in the curriculum so that multiple sections may be offered simultaneously. We would love to see this class reach students in Mankato and hopefully across the Minnesota State System!

Dr. Kim Sommers, PsyD, LP

Dr. Lindsay Murn, PhD, LP

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