If there’s one thing Bella Moncure has learned at Virginia Tech, it’s that working together is critical to promoting being together.

“It’s not just one person or group alone that can successfully promote well-being,” said Moncure, the mental health initiative communicator for the university’s public health campaign #VTBetterTogether. “For it to be effective, you need to work with others to promote unity in that we are all human and we all have mental health needs, and to create a sense of community around that.”

A second-year graduate student in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s public health program, Moncure said that sense of community is critical to both decreasing collective stigma and aiding individual well-being, no matter the severity of needs.

“Everyone has a mind and figuring out how to keep it healthy is important for everyone,” Moncure said.

#VTBetterTogether was launched in 2018 when Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke commissioned a task force to study mental health concerns at Virginia Tech. Since the study, the campaign and other university initiatives have made significant strides in awareness, education, prevention, and intervention in mental health. Many of these efforts can be accessed through the new, streamlined Well-Being at Virginia Tech website.

Earlier this month, Virginia Tech was recognized as one of the healthiest campuses in the country by Active Minds, a nationwide nonprofit that promotes mental health among young adults. And in recent years, the university’s mental health services have also been ranked No. 1 by The Princeton Review.

At the core of this universitywide effort is normalizing mental health as both a priority and unifier for every Hokie.

“We emphasize mental health as a central goal for every member of Virginia Tech, including those of us who may be coping with challenges to our mental health,” said Christopher Flynn, executive director of Mental Health Initiatives at Virginia Tech. “We are all here to grow and to reach our potential while we ensure that we leave no one behind.”

The #VTBetterTogether campaign is an umbrella under which fits programs spanning everything from mental and physical wellness to social opportunities and financial guidance. The campaign is bolstered by the efforts of wellness partners across the university, highlighted by the expansion of student services, presence of peer-to-peer programing, and access of training resources for faculty and staff. Well-being, inclusion, and belonging are also the driving themes of the complete transformation of Virginia Tech’s housing model, which will debut this fall.

During the past five years, Cook Counseling Center has expanded and reorganized, relying on self-evaluations and student feedback to inform its work. More than 20 clinicians have been added, including psychologists, counselors, social workers, nurse practitioners, and support staff. They’ve also begun working with physicians in the third year of their psychiatric residency to offer even more access to students twice a week.

“This is the equivalent to adding almost three full-time psychiatrists to respond to student needs,” said Laura Hungerford, professor and department head of Population Health Sciences and interim director of the Master’s in Public Health Program.

Counselors are also embedded in six specific areas of the university to help provide more tailored services, including the Graduate School.

“It’s certainly beneficial because I get to know the grad students and the kinds of problems they have, so in a way I'm kind of a specialist in graduate students,” said Rita Klein, senior staff psychologist at the Graduate Life Center. “And I think it takes away some of the fear that may be associated with going into a counseling center or seeing a mental health professional. It may even take away some of the stigma associated with seeking help because they're seeking it in their own place where they feel comfortable.”

The Graduate School, which involves multiple campuses across Virginia, also commissioned its own mental health working group in 2019 to assess the unique stresses of this population of students. The school provides workshops for all graduate students to discuss managing relationships with their advisors and supervisors and their work demands, and an ombudsperson to assist with specific issues.

Virginia Tech has a wide breadth of student organizations and programs interested in promoting mental health. Many of those groups are represented in the university’s Mental Health Coalition, which brings those groups together to facilitate meaningful dialogue about mental health on campus.

“The goal is to empower students to care for themselves and their peers, and to elevate student voice,” said Swathi Prabhu, assistant director of mental health and bystander initiatives for Hokie Wellness. “And instead of having only mental health specific organizations, any student leader who wants to engage in dialogue around mental health and incorporate mental health into their organization or community’s work can join.”

Members of the Mental Health Coalition range from representatives from mental health specific organizations to those from academic programs, which provides a well-rounded set of voices speaking on the topic.

Prabhu and David Andrews, associate director for Hokie Wellness, oversee the coalition’s monthly meetings and serve as liaisons between the students and the institution. Prabhu regularly facilitates the group’s dialogue, while also sharing pertinent information, events, and resources.

Along with Hokie Wellness colleague Ana Agud, manager of the work/life program, Prabhu and Andrews also help teach the faculty and staff Mental Health First Aid course. More than 400 employees have completed the eight-hour training since January 2021, while many others have completed the suicide prevention training, Question, Persuade, and Refer, which is offered through a collaboration with Cook Counseling Center.

“This speaks to the idea of broader community well-being and the culture of the institution,” Prabhu said. “When faculty feel trained on how to support a student in emotional distress, feel informed about the plethora of mental health resources available to students, and feel that their own well-being is being supported by the institution, this directly translates into sustainable and effective support for students’ well-being.”

Almost all of Virginia Tech’s efforts related to mental health benefit from the Healthy Minds Survey, which will be completed for the fourth consecutive year in March. The population-based survey helps direct attention and services, as well as providing helpful benchmarks for comparisons with other universities. This year, the survey has also been offered to faculty and staff for the first time.  

Moving forward, several efforts are underway to expand support even further for both student and employee mental health including the exploration of 24/7 telehealth services and having mental health professionals available in residence halls. These efforts, like countless others at Virginia Tech, will very much align in mission with #VTBetterTogether.

“Our commitment to mental health at Virginia Tech continues to evolve as we learn more from our students and from our research data,” said Chris Wise, assistant vice president for Student Affairs. “We are striving to make this more of a community effort where each individual in our community, including students and employees, understand the impact they can have on themselves, on others, and on the community itself.”

Share this story