The independent news organization of Duke University

The pursuit of wellness

guest column

Life as a Duke student can feel surreal—from morning rock climbs and lunches with Nobel laureates to nights cheering on the most storied basketball program in college sports, capped off with twilights in Perkins. With the surplus of opportunities on our campus far outpacing the number of hours in a day, many students are told early on to “pick two”: school, sleep, and social life. Forget about every achieving all three. As a result, personal health and wellbeing often take a backseat on campus, as students race between scholastic and social extremes.

These issues are neither new nor unique to Duke, and speak to a longstanding disconnect between macro-level services (e.g. student health, CAPS) and micro-level student needs (e.g. social wellness, mental health). With the university celebrating its third annual Mental Health Awareness Month in March, Duke Student Government (DSG) convened the Student Leader Steering Committee for an open conversation about the progress to date and challenges ahead for wellness initiatives on campus.

Building on the framework and outcomes of previous meetings on construction, classrooms, the curriculum and intellectual engagement, DSG gathered student leaders from policy and advocacy organizations (e.g. NAMI, the Student Health Advisory Committee, and more) for a discussion with Sue Wasiolek, the Dean of Students.

The committee recognized that the university has made tremendous strides with regards to personal health over the years. On paper, all the resources seem to be there – a 99,000 square foot fitness facility on West, periodic puppy therapy on the quad, mental health counselors available when students need them and a gleaming new student wellness building complete with patient services, a meditation garden and yoga classes. There are also significant options beyond student services. Multiple support groups exist to extend a helping hand to students struggling with depression or anxiety. Student organizations sponsor talks on self-care, stage acapella concerts in the library to alleviate stress, and table on the BC with free food and positive messaging.

However, if Duke offers so much, why then do students continue to struggle with wellness? From binge drinking to depression, problems persist with significant consequences for students’ physical and mental health. Simultaneously, progress remains slow—not because the challenges with wellness are hidden from view, but because of a general apathy towards the array of passive and active programming on campus.

The root cause is not a lack of capital, but rather an absence of culture. For too long, wellness was medicalized on campus. Student health existed on periphery of campus and students’ minds, with most individuals’ interactions limited to their free annual flu shot. Beyond doctor’s appointments, wellness never seems to make its way into the color-coded Google calendars of Duke students. Unhealthy habits can develop rapidly on a campus that puts the personal at the expense of the professional, from all-nighters to, physical inactivity, to poor eating choices. Consequently, most students access the resources on campus on a reactive basis, allowing administrators to only treat symptoms, but never the causes, of poor wellness at Duke.

This frank discussion between students and administrators transitioned to a conversation about how we as a community can better promote healthier living on campus. Reflecting on these challenges, we offer the following recommendations.

First, we must work to institutionalize wellness at Duke. The new wellness center represents a significant step forward, bridging urgent and primary care while co-locating physical (student health) and mental (CAPS) health. But a building – despite all its amenities, ambient lighting, and glass windows – is just a building. The first step was moving wellness to campus center; the next step is making wellness the centerpiece of our community. We call for the creation of “Wellness Fridays”—dedicated time during the week that makes use of the center’s role as a public space on campus to create a welcoming environment that promotes wellness as a cornerstone of campus life. Such an initiative would be reinforced by expanding the center’s diverse public health offerings for each of the six dimensions of wellness – from “koru” breathing classes which foster mindfulness to “composing yourself” courses which reduce stress.

Second, we advocate for the consolidation of wellness resources. For information to percolate through the student body can be a challenge for any student group or administrative body. Gaps in communication persist, such as ambiguity whether walk-in appointments at CAPS are allowed. We applaud the Student Health Advisory Committee’s current work at revamping the student health website and advocating for investment into mobile health plug-ins for the Duke Mobile app. Such efforts will hopefully trigger more widespread initiatives to promote awareness about wellness on campus. For example, administrators could collaborate with faculty-in-residence (FIRs) on East Campus to create wellness programs that foster self-care early-on in a student’s Duke career. Programming should better emphasize the other components of Duke’s “six dimensions of wellness”, such as integrating support systems for social culture and academic stress.

Third, we hope that improving awareness will translate into better recognition about the serious consequences when wellness is neglected. For example, mental health challenges such as depression cannot be used as justification for submitting a short-term illness form (STINF) for academic coursework. The suggestion that students might use mental health “excuses” to abuse the policy is nonsensical and non-unique – you can just as easily fake the flu to get out of class.

Instead, creating a mental health STINF would lend both greater recognition to the challenges that 1 in 4 college students face, strengthen the sense of student community and institutional support on campus, and demonstrate that personal wellness in and out of the classroom is truly a priority at Duke. Similarly, we encourage more events like last year’s “Sleep Convention” for students to understand the seriousness of getting six to eight hours of sleep each night.

We recognize that change will not happen overnight. But wellness in of itself is an incremental process—one achieved through small victories and daily progress, one fostered by the people around us and the environment that we live in. Improving campus life and culture should be a collaborative and inclusive process, and we hope that you will join us as we work to make Duke a healthier and happier place. 


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