Wellness Center: Treating Stress Before it Turns into Crisis

WHERE DO MEDICAL STUDENTS TURN WHEN ACADEMIC, professional, and social pressures push them to the point of emotional crisis? P&S students pondered that question in the spring of 2000 when a member of the Class of 2002 tried to commit suicide, despite the availability of services to help students facing medical school pressures.

“This was very alarming to our class,” says Amanda Heron’03, originally a member of the Class of 2002. “It highlighted the fact that some students were very unhappy.” While most students consider suicide to be at the far end of the spectrum for emotionally disturbed medical students, Ms. Heron adds, they recognized a responsibility to themselves, their classmates, and the school to see if more could be done to ensure the emotional and physical well-being of all students.

In May 2001, 15 P&S students formed a wellness committee. The committee researched support services other medical schools offer and created a comprehensive list of existing services at P&S. The resulting six-page report highlighted such existing resources as student psychiatric services, faculty advisers, the ombuds office, clerical advisers, and the Office of Student Affairs as places for students to turn.

Students have always used the student health psychiatric services, provided by physicians and widely considered top-notch, but committee members wanted to identify other options to accommodate the full range of emotional problems students may face.

“The students agreed that there are several very good resources on campus, but no one central person,” says Dr. Linda Lewis, senior associate dean for student affairs. “Students felt they needed confidential one-stop shopping in a high-traffic student area away from the dean’s office.”

The wellness committee compiled its findings and recommendations into a written report and presented it to Dr. Gerald Fischbach, executive vice president and dean.

“The administration was very supportive,” says Ms. Heron, a wellness committee member. “We wanted to focus on medical students and develop a huge framework that would integrate existing facilities but help us determine where we need new ones. We requested funding, space, and dialogue.”

After meeting with students and reviewing their report, the administration agreed to fund a Center for Student Wellness, now housed in Bard Hall, to help students identify problems and find support. Dr. Lewis worked with the committee to find a director for the office, health educator Bill Kernan, an Ed.D. candidate at Teachers College, who started similar centers at SUNY Potsdam and Vassar College. In July 2002, Mr. Kernan and the committee “hit the ground running.”

Mr. Kernan meets biweekly with the Wellness Committee, now comprised of two elected students from each P&S class and one M.D.-Ph.D. student per class year. Participants in the meetings identify the emotional, physical, and academic problems students encounter at various stages of medical school, build awareness of the center and P&S resources, and brainstorm ways to bring the classes together in more relaxed, non-academic settings.

Mr. Kernan addresses student problems as wide-ranging as how to handle career anxiety or peers in crisis to finding ways to help students balance their academic, emotional, and physical lives. He also contributes “Wellness Tips” to a weekly newsletter published by the P&S Club.

To ensure the center’s “open, safe, and confidential” atmosphere, Mr. Kernan keeps no written records of who comes to the center for help. He notes that the number of students requesting help has grown. The number of students who came to the center in August 2002 doubled in September and tripled in October.

Though the center has been open for less than a year, Mr. Kernan and the committee share a clear vision for its future. “The center is evolving. The phase that we seem to be in right now is an assessment period: finding out our greatest needs and what interventions will be of the greatest benefit and establishing a network so students know what options are available.”

Mr. Kernan is training committee members to implement a peer mentoring program and will help students implement ways to address problems with academic and career preparation, such as help for board exams and interviews.

Students find working on the committee a rewarding extension of their academic work and career plans. “This is a great side to medical school that we see all too rarely,” says Emily Carrier’03, coordinator of the committee. “We now have a chance to make a lasting change, and it’s not going to be a couple of people trying in their spare time to do things all by themselves. This is the reason why many of us got into medicine in the first place.”

Ms. Heron hopes the center raises its profile in a way that tells students, “Columbia cares about me.” She adds: “I would love to see other students at other schools talk about the student wellness center. That’s how we’ll know we’ve had a critical impact. We created a center exclusively dedicated to making sure medical students at P&S are happy, well-balanced, and aware of the tremendous resources Columbia has available to assist students during their four years here. Our success is the result of people believing that students should be happy in medical school and, moreover, that they’ll be better doctors as a result.”

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