Loading icon

Wellness Matters

Opinion | December 9, 2013

Wellness in all its forms, through our policies and programs, from the physical and mental, to the communal and spiritual, maintaining an environment in which we can all thrive. An essential component of well-being is balance, within one’s academic and work lives, as well as between personal and professional commitments.
— Tufts University T10 Strategic Plan, Core Commitment #10

Earlier this semester, Tufts released its 10-Year Strategic Plan, the result of a project spearheaded by Provost David Harris over the past year. While the initiatives of the plan reveal a great deal about the University and outline many new goals that are worth discussing on their own, what is absent from the plan is as interesting as what is present.

The end of the Plan outlines Tufts’ ten “Core Commitments.” By and large, the first nine Core Commitments pervade the Strategic Plan at various points. “Global perspective” is reflected in an entire quarter of the plan around theme of “Creating Innovative Approaches to Local and Global Challenges.” The commitment to “Sustainability” is evidenced in a well-outlined initiative to “create physical spaces consistent with strategic initiatives and sustainability goals.” “Collaboration and Interdisciplinarity” are buffeted by the plans to create a new interdisciplinary “Bridge Professorships” program and to create new collaborative physical spaces. Conspicuously absent from the rest of the plan is the tenth commitment, “Wellness.”

Wellness, under the definition in the Plan itself, covers physical and mental health, communal and spiritual well-being, and work-life balance. At Tufts, this includes the work of Health Services, Health Education, Counseling and Mental Health Services (CMHS), the Office of Equal Opportunity, the University Chaplaincy, the Academic Resource Center, and the Office of Campus Life, among others. It also includes efforts on campus to help students navigate between academic and work commitments and to help the community at-large live and work in healthy environments.

Apart from the list at the end of the Plan, the one other place where the term “wellness” turns up is in the introduction for the section on “Enabling and Integrating Transformational Experiences.” Here, a mention is made of the “institutional support” that many students find to “supplement their academic lives” through Tufts’ “commitment to … wellness.” However, the subsequent initiatives listed under this theme deal with providing greater resources to faculty, hiring a “coordinator of transformational experiences,” increasing commitment to gap year programs, and engaging alumni. What that commitment to wellness means and how it will be developed is nowhere to be found.

This absence troubles me, and it should trouble you, too. We do not live in the idealized world of admissions brochures where we successfully juggle academic, extra-curricular, and work obligations while still managing to lounge on the lawn with our surprisingly diverse group of friends. Real life at college is complicated, and the web of obligations and commitments can often be exceptionally difficult to balance. As students, we know all too well that the cost of education is becoming exorbitant, that part-time jobs are increasingly necessary, and that the obligation to add internships on top of everything is growing. In this rapidly changing context of what college means, ensuring a university-wide, strategically-planned commitment to wellness is a necessary prerequisite to many of the other core commitments and initiatives laid out in the Strategic Plan.

A core component of wellness is health. The Strategic Plan waxes lyrical about all of the opportunities that Tufts provides for its students, but juxtaposed with the increasing cost and stress of a college education, our physical and mental health is crucial if we are going to access those opportunities in the first place. The data clearly shows increasing demand for mental health resources: a quarter of students seek counseling or mental health support of some kind—CMHS reported in 2012 that 20% of students seek out their resources annually, and 5% of students seek off-campus treatment. Of the Class of 2012, 41% reported having used Tufts’ mental health resources, up from 28% in 2007.

It is crucial that we understand why and how this rise is happening, and ensure that we are adequately meeting the needs of our community. CMHS is dedicated to doing this work and has expanded its offerings in recent years, but there is still a lack of publicly available data tracking and exploring patterns. More individuated problems also continue to exist, such as how the nighttime counselor-on-call service through the TUPD hotline is reportedly not available to Boston and Grafton campus students. We have yet to have a serious conversation about Tufts’ relationship to mental health at a university-wide level.

Furthermore, wellness issues affect people of different identities differently, often to the effect of further marginalizing already-marginalized populations. The Council on Diversity’s preliminary report, citing Senior Survey data, stated that “LGBTQ students more likely to perceive a problematic campus climate in regard to eating disorders, sexual harassment, homophobia, alcohol abuse, and racism.” Its analysis of existing survey data also showed that students of color at Tufts perceived a higher public stigma about mental health than average. These findings, and a wealth more of data compiled in the report, show how the unique experiences of these populations on campus affect their health and wellbeing. If a commitment to wellness means “maintaining an environment in which we can all thrive,” then we must explore and address the structural implications of wellness for students of different identities.

Wellness also concerns the safety and security of our community. Rape culture and sexual harassment influence people’s lives on campus every single day. Citing a study of first-year students conducted by the Health Education department, the Council on Diversity’s report states “10% of respondents in 2012 reported receiving unwanted sexual attention during their first week on campus.” This is a startling, terrifying fact that reveals how far we have to go in ensuring the wellness of our community. These issues are starting to be addressed by the administration strategically—earlier this semester, President Monaco launched the Sexual Misconduct Prevention Task Force, partially in response to student activists’ concerns. But neither that Task Force nor any other similar initiatives to strategically address wellness, are present in the Plan.

Despite the positive efforts of many individual departments, Tufts still has serious institutional problems with wellness. For example, a little-known but troubling issue is the tuition insurance program currently offered by Tufts through Dewar Insurance, under which a student (with insurance) who withdraws due to illness or injury will receive 100% of their tuition for the remainder of the semester. But if a student has to withdraw for “mental/nervous/emotional” reasons, then they only receive 60% of their remaining tuition. This is unjust, stigmatizes mental illness, and further increases the financial stress that students face. These are the kinds of problems that need to be exposed and addressed by a strategic look at wellness.

In all these aspects of wellness and more, strategic planning could move Tufts forward leaps and bounds. For example, one of the better practical impacts to arise out of the Plan already is the increase in the compiling of different sources of data, as seen in the Council on Diversity report. Various kinds of data about wellness exist already, such as the Healthy Minds surveys conducted in 2007 and 2010, and the data that institutions such as CMHS and the Academic Resource Center naturally gather in order to do their work. Let’s start compiling the data we have on various kinds of wellness and trying to look at the big picture. Analyzing this data could reveal where we should direct our resources next or problems we haven’t spotted yet. At the very least, it would give the Tufts community more to work with in having a conversation about wellness.

That conversation is essential, both for the University’s resource allocation and for the community’s wellness itself. For those students who feel alienated by the pristine images in admissions brochures, an explicit commitment to understanding, addressing, and working on wellness issues from the University can open up more spaces for us to have conversations about those issues with the larger community. This acknowledgement and commitment could make students who don’t feel represented by the image of Tufts feel more welcome and less isolated during the complicated journey that is college.

Wellness isn’t some item on a checklist that we will magically find a solution to in the next ten years. It requires constant work, regular re-evaluation, and collaboration across the university. But this is precisely why we should be thinking about it strategically, planning for upcoming challenges, and improving our infrastructure. We can always do better at encouraging the wellness of our community, and we must pursue that possibility aggressively. For that, we need more than just words. We need strategy. We need planning, at a university-wide level, to support existing resources and grow new ones. The Strategic Plan has failed so far at capturing this need, but we can and must pursue it, and we must do so now.