The Seeds of Wellness and Connections
Jeanne Williamson, David Israels-Swenson and Matt Johnson
University of Minnesota Morris
When young people leave home for college, they leave behind much that is familiar. Jeanne Williamson, David Israels-Swenson, and Matt Johnson talk about how the University of Minnesota Morris creates a community that sustains and supports students well-being and success. Jeanne Williamson is Associate Director for Student Counseling, Health, and Wellbeing; David Israels-Swenson is Senior Director for Student Activities, Health, and Wellness; and Matt Johnson is the athletic director, all at the University of Minnesota Morris. Jeanne, David, Matt, and the University of Minnesota Morris can be reached at https://morris.umn.edu.
[Jaunty Guitar Music]
Mike: Welcome, everybody. This is Avoiding the Addiction Affliction, a series brought to you by Westwords Consulting and the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan.
Mike: Last week, we had the privilege of having a conversation about college life, substances, and university culture with Sandy Olson Loy and Adrienne Conley of the University of Wiscon... University of Minnesota! I knew I'd make that mistake. Morris.
Mike: Today, we're going to continue that conversation with three of their colleagues. Jeanne Williamson is Associate Director for Student Counseling, Health and Well Being, coordinates Morris' Let's Thrive Student Counseling and Well Being efforts. David Israels-Swenson is Senior Director for Student Activities, Health and Wellness. Coordinates New Student Welcome Week, Student Organizations and Engagement. And Matt Johnson, and Matt, thanks for joining me because as an athlete, I wanted to have you on here, is the University of Minnesota Morris' Athletic Director. Welcome to all of you.
Matt: Hey, thanks Mike, thanks for having us in.
David: Glad to be here.
Mike: Yeah, David, I wanted to start with you, David, since well, let's start with new student orientation.
Mike: When new students come in at orientation, what do you want the families and students to know about alcohol use as a factor in student achievement? And are they listening?
David: Oh, I would say they're not only listening, they're asking questions.
David: So this is not uncommon for us to hear questions about. And I think I heard a little bit about your daughter's experience and I want to say that sort of surprises me. I would say that our experience here at Morris is very different. I wanted to say sort of the first thought I had when I thought about this was, I think there's still a very romanticized thought about what the college experience is like.
David: And I will point out that when thinking about that, everyone goes to Animal House, which I'll point out was released in 1978. So 40, 50 years later, I think the college experience at most schools across the country is very different now than I think what pop culture has taught us the college experience is. So the world has shifted not just around alcohol and drugs, but I think many of the sort of concepts of it, that romanticized view of the college experience have changed.
David: Sandy talked a little bit of numbers. I'm just going to throw a few at you. So we participate in the Boynton student health survey every 3 years. And just looking at our numbers in this for the last few years when asked students who report that they currently use alcohol, this is dropped from 64 percent of students saying that they use alcohol at all in any context in 2007.
David: To 48 percent in 2021. That's, that's huge. And when we looked at students who's drinking based on how they reported in this survey would classify as high risk drinking, we're looking at a change from 31 percent to 20 percent over that same period. So, I think there is a big shift and the college experience is not necessarily I think what many people assume or have this vision of what it is.
David: At welcome week, we spend a lot of time sort of helping students learn about resources on campus, introducing them into the culture and expectations of our community. And part of that is helping them understand that there's all sorts of opportunities for them to get engaged and get involved and that they need to find the ones that are right for them.
David: And we also spend a lot of times talking about wellness and making good decisions for their own mental health and physical health as they embark on the beginning of this experience.
David: Well, Jeanne, let me kick it to you then, as long as David broached the mental health part of that. What do you address with them week one regarding mental health?
David: I think last week we heard Sandy say we've seen a huge increase in mental health concerns among students.
Jeanne: Yeah, so as far as Welcome Week goes, we do a large level well being tag where myself, one of my colleagues, and a faculty member actually talk about student well being and mental health. We introduce resources and services, but we also have them do some hands on exercises that they can continue to use throughout their time here to help manage stress.
Jeanne: Things like meditation, doing some positive psychology work. So that happens their very first week here. And then the other thing that they get actually before they arrive is AlcoholEdu, which is an online program that helps educate and provide information on all sorts of things from From harm reduction approaches, but also to bystander intervention and making sure that they're aware of policies on campus.
Jeanne: So that goes out to them before they arrive. And then we usually require that that is completed within a couple of weeks. And we follow up individually with students if they're living in their residence halls to see if they have questions, why they haven't done it, those types of things. So those all happen immediately.
Jeanne: And then of course, of course, we have embedded services wrapped in several areas. We have a licensed alcohol and drug counselor that we contract with, who's able to do assessments and some follow up care. We actually fund that through a SAMHSA grant that we have here at Lee Smith Grant right now.
Jeanne: This is our final year of that and we do different work throughout partnerships on campus. That's part of why Matt is here, is we work pretty closely with intercollegiate athletics and other folks on campus as well.
Mike: Well, let me ask you that, Matt. You know, athletics is such a huge part of the college experience, right?
Mike: Not just for the athletes, but for the student body and alumni as well. Jeanne alluded to it. You've partnered with her about providing positive mental health and well being resources. Tell us about that.
Matt: Yeah, it's it's Mike, to be honest with you, it's one of my most proud things that I've worked on here as my time as athletic director just because we, we identified an area of need and then in working with Jeanne and, and we're talking this predates COVID actually, it was, it was 2018 ish, 2019.
Matt: So, you know, four or five years ago where Jeanne's office was seeing a lot of our student athletes in, in counseling and, and in other areas. And with athletics being such a huge percentage of the student body and just, and not just exclusive to Morris, but at, at, you know, institutions across, across the globe that, that we took a concerted effort to start working together and focusing not just on the mental health of the student athletes, but there's initiatives regarding sleep and about you know, just general wellbeing.
Matt: And I think if I'm not wrong, Jeanne, there was five different initial working groups, correct?
Jeanne: Yeah, we have one on substance abuse as well as mental health.
Matt: You know, so it's seeing areas that were directly affecting our students and then trying to come up with cooperative ways to work together and to kind of bridge some of those gaps.
Matt: And a lot of that Mike to be honest with you was was destigmatizing all everything that is and around mental health and bringing it right into our house, you know it in athletics, we do things like let's talk and things that historically. Where, where our students were going out into the campus as a whole, and they said, Jeanne broke down those barriers and she brought them to us.
Matt: And the results with our, with our students have just been, I mean, incredible. Just absolutely incredible.
Mike: Well, let's keep going with that Jeanne. You have something called "Let's Thrive". What is that? And how accessible is student mental health help?
Jeanne: Sure. So there's sort of a lot of different pockets of things that we do.
Jeanne: What Matt references, "Let's Talk", that's a drop in consultation service where our counseling staff is able to be in a room over in athletics and folks are able to drop in for a consultation with a counselor. It's walk in, you don't have to wait, you don't have to do formal paperwork or an appointment.
Jeanne: "Morris Let's Thrive" is our model for well being for our students and we developed that actually in 2017, I believe. And it really takes Morris and what we are, who we are, we are out in the prairie of rural Minnesota. And so our model actually has prairie plants on it and ties in wellbeing to each of those prairie plants.
Jeanne: And we talk about how things die off and there are different times for different things in life. And we really use that model. So that's been great. But "Morris Let's Thrive" does a lot of different things and a lot of different partnerships. So that part of that is what Matt was talking about.
Jeanne: But we also, you know, when we're talking about substance abuse issues, we were subscribe partners with our public safety office and we do, we do a beer goggles event with golf carts. And we do, we do those types of things where it's called fatal vision. There's just a lot of different ways that we partner throughout that work, but we try to be an embedded model at the core of "Morris Let's Thrive".
Jeanne: We're embedded in classes by offering workshops. We're embedded in athletics. We try to do things where students are already existing because we found over the years that they do not just come to us. And in fact, we would hear like, I'm too stressed. So like do an extra thing. So we go to them in all sorts of different areas, including athletics.
Matt: Yeah, Mike, if I can follow up on that too, you know, when Jeanne talks about embedding and then I talked about destigmatization, and I know we hear those words all the time, right? They're almost buzzwords. But, but what Jeanne and I and campus as a whole were able to do was bring those to reality. You know, again, the "Let's Talk" grouping, which happens two times a week. That's something that has developed. And now it's, it's a regular occurrence. It's something that students can know that at this particular hour on these two days, they can come and just have not a therapy session as much as just a chance where, you know, you're in a safe space At our all student meeting to begin the year, Jeanne is there with us and she's doing activities up on stage and we're handing out sleep kits and we're doing those things to further say, "Hey, counseling is counseling, but they're a part of what Cougar athletics is."
Matt: If you go to our web page right under inside athletics and you go under staff, you will see Jeanne Williamson and her staff listed. So it's not this these ancillary pieces that that we talk about, but we're actually living it you know Jeanne spends a lot of her personal time to go to practices and not just her, but her colleagues as well. That it's not uncommon for us to be at a volleyball match or a football practice or a baseball practice and counseling is there so the students can feel it, can see it, can know that that support is real and genuine. Again, I don't know that that's exclusive to us, but I'd like to think it is because again, we ID'ed an issue and took it and we've hit the ground running. There's always work to do, but boy, have we made progress?
Mike: Well, it normalizes it, right? And you know, David, that sense of belongingness is so important to feeling connected for students, right, in college? So, going off what Matt just said, what is done then to go beyond that, to encourage a healthier sense of community without all the obstacles that substances provide?
David: Yeah, I think one of the reasons that I think you build such camaraderie on a team is the time you spend together.
David: And I think that's a great opportunity for athletes. Our challenge is how do we provide that same sense of connectedness and help other students build those same sort of small communities to feel a sense of belonging, to find their people. And we start this right away with Welcome Week. I think Sandy talked a little bit about how, you know, this generation of students had a very different experience through the pandemic and connecting over Zoom.
David: And so we found that a lot of students have lacked the skills of, you know, those basic meeting people making friends. So we brought in some external facilitators to do a program called "Play Fair On Campus" the last few years as a part of our Welcome Week, which is essentially really intense, large group icebreakers.
David: So we're trying to help break down some of those barriers and help teach them those skills. And I shout out to Matt, because his teams come in, we get the, you know, several of the athletic teams that will come in and actually help and assist with that as well. So it's not just focusing on them. They're helping to help the entire campus build those communities. We have a system called Campus Connection, which helps student org leaders organize and manage their groups. It also is a great way for students to figure out where they feel connected and where they can find belonging. So, when a student first onboards into that system, they sort of identify from a whole list of topics, what things they're passionate about, or they're interested in. And then it can match them to student organizations that share those interests.
David: And when we talk about engagement, we talk about how being engaged should help academic success. And I just again, I want to throw out some more statistics for you here. At the Morris campus. We have very clear evidence. Based, looking over the past few years, if I look at Spring 23, a student who was engaged in at least one student organization had an average GPA of 3.262 versus a student who was not engaged in any student organizations, the average GPA was 2.995. So we're seeing that correlation. We're seeing students who are engaged in at least one student org are retained about 2 percent higher than students who are not. And even attending events, this one stunned me when we looked at this last year, but if you attended no events in the 2022-23 year, the average GPA for students who attended no events was 2.679. Attending just one event raised that GPA average to 3.1175. So clear evidence that it's that connection and that belongingness, really helps a student to succeed. And so we do what we can to sort of, I think, help create that. And as you, we always talk about during Welcome Week, a student should leave Welcome Week with at least, you know, two communities already.
David: They've got the group that they were their Welcome Week group and they have their floor group that they live with And then I was if you were a part of a an athletic program That's a third if you were part of our gateway early transition program. That's that's a third. You know there's so many opportunities here. And we want to help them build those relationships early because we know it's important to their success.
Mike: Terrific. Jeanne, I asked last week, I asked Sandy and Adrienne this same question (chuckle), and I just love asking this, so humor me, right? August 1st, Minnesota legalized recreational cannabis. I know that that has to be a concern for all of you, even if we, so how, what, what have you seen, especially on the mental health end of it?
Mike: I think Sandy alluded to last week. And I would agree with her because what I've seen over my professional career is some kids choose to handle their own mental health issues with substances, especially weed. So what have you seen since then and what are you nervous about or proactively trying to address?
Jeanne: Yeah, 100 percent, cannabis use is high among college students. I don't have our actual data on that. Dave, maybe you do from the Boynton Health Survey, but we see a lot of reports of cannabis use for students who struggle. And a few years ago, I was at the NASPA conference and I saw a really great speaker on college student cannabis use and you know, the thought or the idea that that helps everybody deal with anxiety or depression or whatever it is, is so high.
Jeanne: So I think education is really, really important and we haven't seen the impact of that loss specifically on campus, I would say kind of similar to what Adrienne had said because it didn't really change much for our campus policies and what we expect and what we allow on campus. But we continue to see that in in mental health treatment is high rates of cannabis use and how that impacts people. And cannabis is, of course, not a great motivator. So when we're trying to do things like write papers and study for exams, the cannabis use doesn't come in real handy. So we definitely try to try to teach alternate skills to that.
Jeanne: We also have a psychiatric service on campus where we can treat with prescribed medication. So it definitely is a complicating factor in our work with students.
Mike: That's a great comment, Matt. I'm going to, I'm going to add one additional one for you. I work with a lot of pro athletes, right? And sometimes, and it's, it's, they choose sometimes to use.
Mike: In fact, some of the leagues have, de-everythinged, especially marijuana.
Mike: They use it as an alternative painkiller, et cetera, and don't think it's a big deal at all. And given that that's the, for an athlete, what they see people in the next level above them doing. How do your coaches address that and substance use with their athletes?
Matt: Yeah, no, it's a great question. And you're absolutely right, Mike, in terms of athletics, sometimes all gets grouped together and saying, well, if this is what, you know, whatever an NBA player is doing, it's the same thing that a division three basketball player is doing.
Matt: And, and while I think there's some similarities in that realm for the most part. They're not, they're just different worlds. You know, we haven't seen much like what Jeanne was just sharing on campus. We haven't seen a huge uptick in terms of at least reported cases to me. Campus handles it the same and still from an NCA perspective, it's still completely illegal from that perspective.
Matt: So the coach's role in that is just communicating, you know, and widely sharing as much information as they can about what happens if you choose to do this, what happens if you're caught? But then the other part of it is we've had Gene come into our, to our programs and teams. And once again, talk about exactly what it looks, what is, what does it, you know, X amount of drinks. What does that do to your system? How long before that gets out after alcohol? If you were to, you know, to smoke some weed, what does that do to your performance? Not just in the classroom, writing a paper, but how do you want to be a better athlete? This is what this has this performance to you. And again, and not on an addiction standpoint, but you, you want to perform better.
Matt: This is what positive sleep does for you. So once again, it's, it's talking about those things widely and openly with the students, instead of having closed or quiet conversations. I would venture to say all of our teams, at least many, most of them are openly talking about, "Hey, if you want to go out on a bender after a game, that's your call, but this is what it's going to do. There's so many days it takes to recover." You know? So again, I think the key that we've seen with that relationship with coaches and athletes is. There's a lot of frank, open communications about what it does to your body.
Mike: Yeah. And David, I've seen over my career. Topics are not talked about by people who feel uncomfortable talking about those topics because they don't want to look stupid, right?
Mike: And that goes all the way from educators to coaches to parents. And it seemed in all of your comments over the last two weeks that all of you are trying to create a culture that just normalizes discussions about all of this.
David: I think we have to. I think if we don't, then we're just sort of letting that secret eat at us from the inside.
David: And I think part of having healthy mental health is being able to talk about these things. I think a healthy culture needs to be able to explore and discuss what these healthy choices look like and what unhealthy choices don't look like and make informed decisions.
Mike: Jeanne, I'm going to give all of you a little going away question. I'll start with you. If a student comes in and talks to you, what do you tell them are the keys to them being successful at Morris?
Jeanne: That's a tough question. I usually tell different students different things but I think the number one thing as a clinician that I try to do, is just be there with them in whatever space that they're in. Sometimes that involves things like motivational interviewing. Sometimes that involves things like education or psychoeducation.
Jeanne: Sometimes that involves just hooking people up with resources in our community and on our campus. It looks a lot of different ways. But I think the biggest thing that we try to convey both from our office and from the embedded work that we do is that we're here for the students. And we do this work because we care about the students and we love working with college students.
Jeanne: And so if we can show that in all the different ways that we do and let them see that, I think that's really powerful.
Mike: Matt, how would you answer that question?
Matt: I'll give the same response Jeanne did in terms of it's a challenging one, but I guess my, and I am who I am, so I'll use my words, being vulnerable.
Matt: Like, I think one thing that I've seen a transformation in students and specific to college athletes, and I know, Mike, you've got your experience with it is there, there's such a sediment of you've got to be this tough person. You can't let you know you can't bring anything with you on a field or in a court or in a pool.
Matt: And it doesn't always have to be addiction related. It could be struggling with a class. It could be having troubles at home. It could be a partner relationship. There are a thousand different things, but it had always been this situation where you don't talk about that at a football practice, you don't talk about that when you're out on the track or women's tennis team.
Matt: And now what we're trying to do is the opposite of that. Like I, we widely, as much as we can tell kids, when you have an issue, go to your head coach. Go to your athletic director, go to, you know, someone in counseling, find who your person is, call your mom and dad, you know, that rather than trying to hide the realities of the life and the struggle that are, that, you know, college age kids are facing. Instead, feel comfortable to be enough to be vulnerable.
Matt: And by the way, that's way easier said than done, but we've tried to model it as much as we can. And I've seen positive strides come from it.
Mike: David, connectedness seems to be the theme.
David: It really does, and if I had one piece of advice, it's the one thing I tell students, and that's get out of your room and get involved.
Mike: (laugh) You know, okay, I have to do this, alright? Jeanne, you're a little younger than at least David and I, I think. When I went to college, every dorm room door was open. And you just went back and forth between the different open dorm rooms. And when I go to colleges now, David, that's, that's such a great observation.
Mike: You can walk down a hallway and all the doors are closed.
David: And that's a COVID response. We taught them for two years that they needed to be isolated and away from other people to be safe. And now we're trying to break that habit, and it's a challenge.
Mike: It is, because a body in motion tends to stay in motion, and a body at rest tends to stay at rest, right? (laugh)
Mike: Well, this has been a great two weeks and a great conversation. I've wanted to have this for a very long time with members of a university. And I'm so grateful to your administration and to all of you for being so willing to open up and share what you've learned, what you're doing and how you're helping young people at the University of Minnesota Morris.
Mike: You all know there are links to the university's resources are at the end of this podcast. We want to thank Sandy and Adrienne. For last week and Jeanne, David, and Matt for joining us today.
Mike: For those of you listening, we invite you to listen in next time when we talk about the challenges and opportunities all of us face as we go through our own periods of life. Until then, we look forward to sharing the air with you and stay safe.
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