As part of its recent quarterly meeting this week, the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors discussed what is nationally a very hot topic in higher education: student mental health and well-being. Interim Vice President for Student Affairs Frances Keene provided an overview of mental health support structures in place at Virginia Tech, and introduced two new initiatives for students aimed at developing habits of wellness and accessing help when they need it.

The context

Nationwide, the need for mental health counseling services on university campuses continues to surge, with the demand at Virginia Tech increasing each year.

While Virginia Tech scores highly in measures of student retention, graduation rates, graduate employment, and diversity and inclusion, the university’s data on student wellness is on a par with national numbers.

According to the 2019 Virginia Tech Mental Health Task Force Recommendation Report, students from vulnerable populations, including Black, Hispanic, Asian, LGBTQ+, and financially insecure students, show an increased risk of mental health problems.

The Residential Well-being Initiative

Launched this fall, the Residential Well-being initiative brings resources and programs into students’ living and learning environment. With live-in, embedded counsellors; an emphasis on student-leader positions that prioritize students’ well-being, engagement, and success; and ongoing mentoring and support from faculty and staff coaches, the initiative supports holistic well-being and the mental health of Virginia Tech students by bringing helpful resources to their residence halls.

“A culture of well-being must include systemic and organizational changes to students’ living, learning, and social environments in addition to encouraging changes to individuals’ habits and behaviors,” Keene said. “Residential well-being is now the work of everyone in Student Affairs.”

The Residential Well-being initiative reaches students when there are the greatest opportunities to impact their well-being: their time of entry into the university community — from orientation to move-in.

Virginia Tech boasts the largest full-time residential student population in Virginia. The residential environment is rich with opportunities to affect the mental health and well-being of students. Almost every undergraduate student at Virginia Tech begins their experience in a residence hall, and the habits, patterns, and relationships formed that first year can significantly influence the trajectory of a student’s success.

In the Residential Well-being approach, equity and inclusion are inherently connected to well-being, and a focus on the well-being of students from vulnerable populations improves the well-being of the entire community. The Residential Well-being initiative creates smaller communities of students within the residential environment to foster engagement and belonging. Student and staff roles have shifted from compliance or enforcement to community building, care, and connection.

Virtual help through TimelyCare

TimelyCare, a virtual health service that is the latest addition to Virginia Tech’s mental health and wellness resources, is also new this fall. Offered to students at no cost, TimelyCare does not replace, but rather adds to the many mental health support structures in place at Virginia Tech.

Through TimelyCare, students can connect to a counselor for immediate care, scheduled counseling, or health coaching. They can access TimelyCare with a phone, computer, or tablet, and they can choose phone or video sessions. Students can register in the TimelyCare app or through the TimelyCare website and are encouraged to do so before they need the services.

TimelyCare accommodates more than 250 languages and offers translation services. The service is also ADA accessible through the app. Another benefit is that students can access TimelyCare when they are home for holidays or away from campus for internships, regardless of their location in the United States. TalkNow is available internationally with a U.S based phone number or VPN.

The discussion

After the presentation, Keene was joined by Natalie E. Cook, assistant professor of Public Health, Department of Population Health Sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, and faculty principal of the Honors Residential Commons. Saad Khan also joined in the discussion with the board. Khan graduated in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in clinical neuroscience and a minor in psychology and advocated for mental health resources through the Virginia Tech chapter of Active Minds. He is now working with Hokie Wellness as a mental health initiatives coordinator.

The panel led a discussion about the most critical issues to address regarding mental health and well-being in the Virginia Tech community. They also talked about loneliness, citing that 52 percent of Virginia Tech students report feelings related to loneliness as measured by the UCLA Loneliness Scale.

Cook emphasized a holistic approach to help students thrive. “I see my role as providing the leadership and scaffolding necessary to foster a thriving living and learning community where all members feel a sense of belonging, agency, and connection, regardless of their major, background, identity, or hometown," she said.

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