Within the last twelve months, over 60% of undergraduate students in the US have “felt overwhelming anxiety,” over 40% have “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function,” and over 10% have “seriously considered suicide,” according to Spring 2017 data from 92 US institutions surveyed by the National College Health Assessment.
Where does Minerva fit in this landscape?
Minerva’s own mental health surveys show we are not an exception to the trends shown at other US colleges, according to Dr. James Lyda, Director of Mental Health Services.
Dr. Lyda notes that Minerva students generally experience a similar level of mental health struggles to that of the average college student. However, he also notes that over the past two years he has seen 50% of first-year Minerva students for consultation at least once — twice the US college average.
While an increased rate of support-seeking could indicate less stigma within the student body around therapy consultation, it also raises the question as to why so many Minerva students are in need of such support.
It is no surprise Minerva brings unique stress factors to a student’s college education — it is an undeniably unique experience. Students begin in San Francisco for eight months then relocate every four months for the following three years, travelling to new countries with a diverse, cross-cultural student body. All the while, Minerva is still in its early years, undergoing rapid institutional change that influences student experience.
Stress factors beyond the basic innovative institutional framework may influence student mental health. For example, the high academic standards require prioritizing academic work, while Minerva’s unique framework of traveling each semester creates pressure to conquer city immersion. Extensive community engagement opportunities, high expectations for professional development, and work-study add further stress.
All of this raises the question: what does Minerva as an institution value most? Being extraordinary or being well? In an ideal world, the two might coexist, but in reality, it seems there are trade-offs.
As one student framed it, “Yes, Minerva is the opportunity of a lifetime — it is supposed to be demanding and challenging — but to what extent? At what cost? This place is supposed to make us better, not break us down.”
Minerva prioritizes student success, and five of its eight academic learning outcomes directly or indirectly refer to wellness: Minerva graduates should “develop self-reliance,” “be resilient […] to learn and recover from failure and disappointment,” “value and take care of […] physical health, mental health, and wellness,” “understand the importance of work-life balance” and “be able to ask for and provide support,” as Teri Cannon, Chief Student Affairs & Operations Officer at Minerva and member of the senior team, told the Quest.
In practice so far, this has meant establishing robust individual support mechanisms and trying to raise mental health concerns not just in the mental health team but across staff and faculty.
Minerva has taken a developmental approach to students’ mental health, meaning they focus on individual circumstances in helping people to cope better with the stress levels that can come with the Minerva experience. To do this, Minerva has a mental health team in each city where students are hosted in addition to the residence advisors, residence life coordinators, and a student affairs team. These professionally staffed mental health teams are designed to assist students on the ground in each city. Minerva also partners with the International Student Support Program (ISSP) for outside services, and there is a Student Support Network that establishes itself in each cohort’s freshman year at Minerva.
“Stress is not always bad, but it can be,” says Dr. Lyda.
To recognize when stress turns into a problem, Minerva has a Community Care Initiative (CCI) through which staff and faculty meet weekly, or more frequently when emergencies arise, to discuss concern about individual student cases in each city. This group of staff and faculty look for patterns of deterioration in individual students and decide which students to monitor, when to step in, and who from the Minerva community should, and is most appropriate to, support those students. All Minerva staff and faculty know that they should refer concerns about students to the CCI.
While the mental health team helps with assessing the level of concern, it can often be other actors who will be better placed to support those in need. At the end of the year, the CCI reviews its actions and attempts to improve future mental health initiatives for the community.
Minerva’s student body is chosen to be diverse. With a diversity of people also come divergent experiences, including those with stress and mental health.
The Quest interviewed and invited students to submit anonymous feedback on their mental health experience at Minerva. The responses show an image of overwhelming struggles, but also hope and perseverance.
One student worries that there is an “enormous problem in tone, both coming from the students, in cynicism and assuming worst intent, and administration, in defensiveness and assuming all claims are unfounded.”
Several students spoke to feeling a culture of “negativity.”
Further, a student believes that, “sometimes it appears that those who need help the most do not reach out to get it,” and that medical assistance is not always available. A one-off sickness can “become a snowball of work and stress” that overwhelms students, because there is little room to fall behind academically.
Another student alluded to the tradeoffs inherent to Minerva’s model, explaining that, “there is no time to take care of myself if I want to be included and engaged in the Minerva community.”
On the other hand, one student expressed that, although “Minerva has definitely increased my levels of anxiety […] all my professors, people in the academic team and Minerva staff have been understanding and helpful, going to great lengths to help me cope and do well academically.”
Another exclaimed that they “have never been so grateful for an institution or a set of people, or really my own ability to make good of the situation I’m in.”
Most of the support mechanisms that are currently in place focus on dealing with individual struggles and needs. This is changing.
Cannon has approved the launch of a Minerva Wellness Initiative, “to promote a culture within Minerva that supports awareness of what it means to live a healthy and fulfilling life and encourages everyone to make choices and engage in activities that contribute to their wellbeing.”
Its first iteration came in the form of a music program for the Class of 2021 students in San Francisco.
As a next step, Laura Corallini, the Global Student Affairs Manager who leads the pilot in the 2018 spring semester, is looking for students to work as wellness ambassadors and help develop engaging wellness activities. She wants to “try multiple kinds of programming to appeal to as many students as possible” and promises to continuously “assess and refine [programming], based on data and student feedback.”
The intention is for a shift towards more concern for community wellbeing, beyond individual wellbeing, as a key part of mental health. The effort will also address student expectations.
Stress can be about perception, not action, as Dr. Lyda notes. Minerva’s mantra of “achieving extraordinary” may mean different things to different staff, faculty, and students. The interplay of those expectations with individual perceptions of personal and collective stress can contribute to heightened insecurity. Cannon and Dr. Lyda agree that the whole organization should look at how Minerva may perpetuate stress in this way, and have a conversation about how Minerva as an institution can take care of its community members better.
Mental health at Minerva is not yet extraordinary. Fortunately there is a willingness to change this. Time will tell if it is possible to have a university that prepares students for life in highly stressful environments by giving them not just the academic and professional capabilities, but also the tools to achieve holistic health and wellness needed for success.
As one student puts it, “I don’t think Minerva is unique in its struggles, but I do think it lacks ‘innovation’ in the student wellness department. If we’re trying to be an innovative university, shouldn’t that be part of it?”