In an email sent to students, faculty, and staff on Feb. 8, President Biddy Martin detailed the college’s plans to help improve community well-being over the coming months. The new action plan comes after an 89 percent increase last semester in the number of students seeking help at the Counseling Center. In addition to increasing resources for the Counseling Center, the college’s new plan includes a bevy of on-campus activities and encourages faculty to be more attentive to student well-being.
In a statement to The Student, Dean of Students Liz Agosto and Director of the Counseling Center Darrien McFadden explained the rationale behind the college’s new policies. They stated, “We are deeply concerned about the number of traditionally college-aged students (18-25) nationally who are reporting depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns; the numbers have been increasing for the last decade, but the situation has been made acute during Covid.”
Agosto added that, in order to ensure the plan is effective, it not only targets the mental health of students, but also their “physical, emotional, spiritual, social, intellectual, and interpersonal health.” She said, “We have been working in all of these areas separately, but have become increasingly focused on coordinating, integrating, and enhancing those efforts.”
The email announced a number of events intended to strengthen a sense of community and fun on campus. Student Activities will host two trivia nights (one of which already took place on Feb. 18) and a bingo night, which will each feature prizes. Beginning Feb. 17, Orr Rink will be open for ice skating from 8 to 11 p.m. on Thursdays. In a partnership between the Office of Student Affairs and local “outdoor adventure company” Adventure East, the college will also provide “full- and half-day outdoor programs” starting Feb. 12. The email noted the return of food trucks — now on Saturdays — beginning Feb. 12, as well as late night dining on Feb. 17.
Supriya Chang ’25 believes that the events will be highly beneficial to students’ wellness. “I think a lot of people automatically think about the Counseling Center when they think about getting treatment on campus. But that’s not the only way that you can improve your mental health, even though therapy is obviously very, very useful,” Chang said.
She added, “I think that these other initiatives are really nice, because it reinforces the idea that wellness is not something that you just find when you’re in therapy, but it can also be found in daily activities. So just recognizing that doing activities that bring you joy is a way of taking care of yourself, as well.”
In order to “provide increased opportunities for student engagement,” the Office of Student Activities will also be moving from the lower level of Keefe Campus Center to the building’s first floor.
Agosto elaborated on why the decision will hopefully improve students’ wellness. “The goal is to create an open and exciting space for students and registered student organizations when you walk into Keefe. We hope that this move, along with student organizations, the centers, and other offices in Keefe, will create an even more vibrant space for students and lots of opportunities for collaboration,” she said.
This week, Keefe will also feature an art installation, organized by the Multicultural Resource Center, with content from earlier Black Art Matters festivals.
The email also announced the purchase of an outdoor stage which will be installed in the Greenway this spring and provide a venue for “outdoor concerts, dance and theater performances, and other creative student ideas.” Additionally, it highlighted a slew of upcoming festivals, including LitFest (Feb. 24-27), Winter Fest (March 6), and City Streets (early April).
The email disclosed that the recent loosening of college-wide Covid restrictions is intended to alleviate the “heightened sense of physical and social isolation, exhaustion, and anxiousness” spurred by the more-stringent protocols.
The email also detailed that the college would move exercise equipment into the Nicholls Biondi fitness studio as part of a pilot program, for “students who need or prefer greater privacy than the Wolff Fitness Center affords.”
However, Agosto noted the change has been paused after speaking with students about the difficulty of finding appropriate alternative spaces for dance and movement, specifically spaces with mirrors. She said that she will soon meet “with student leaders from the dance organizations to discuss their space needs and see whether there is a way to meet those needs in spaces other than Nicholls Biondi.”
Additionally, the email announces that the college has begun searching for two new staff counselors and up to three new Counseling Center staff members. These changes come after many students struggled to receive adequate counseling support from an overextended Counseling Center last semester. The three new staff members will be part of a Post-Graduate Fellowship Program intended to “provide clinical training for the next generation of college counseling practitioners.”
Chang feels that the Counseling Center’s appointment of new counselors will be the most impactful new wellness initiative. “I’m super excited that they’re hiring more people for the Counseling Center. It’s been a really big issue that people need to talk to someone and there haven’t been enough providers at each moment to see everyone.”
Kathleen Harris ’24E echoed Chang’s sentiments. “I’m glad the administration has hired more support for the Counseling Center, because I know students have really felt the understaffing when they try to make appointments,” Harris said.
She added, “I’m also really appreciative of the fact that Amherst is starting to focus on overall well-being as a means of improving the mental health of their students, and it’s been great to see people already taking advantage of the new opportunities available.”
This enlarged staff will help oversee an expanded schedule of discussion groups, therapy groups, and skill classes, as well as “Well-Being Wednesdays,” a weekly program featuring resources and activities based on well-being.
In addition to expanding its staff, the email announced that the Counseling Center will be relocated to a single location closer to the center of campus, a move that is expected to take place next summer.
The college will also enter into the JED Campus Network, a nonprofit dedicated to developing strategic plans for supporting student mental health, and form a partnership with the Steve Fund, a similar organization focusing on young people of color, as per the Feb. 8 email.
Attempts to improve student well-being will also result in changes in some academic policies this semester. The college will introduce student well-being training sessions for faculty members and has strongly encouraged faculty to avoid giving assignments over Spring break.
Agosto and McFadden recognize that students at the college are under immense pressure. “There is the stress that comes with a fear of failure, with the pressures of managing a rigorous schedule, and the challenge of balancing academics with other activities and life events. We know there are students who are experiencing isolation, loneliness, and lack of connection, all of which have been exacerbated by the two years of the pandemic,” they said.
Going forward, McFadden and Agosto “hope a more coordinated focus on mental health and well-being will become a broader shift” in which students will “feel freer to try new things and to make mistakes, to speak openly about seeking help and finding support.” Overall, they say the goal is “that students engage fully and thrive inside and outside of the classroom.”