Mind, body, spirit: Union's integrated approach to wellness

Publication Date
The Nott Memorial

Alexa Steriti ’17 and Carolyn Connors ’17 have just one term at Union under their belts, but they’re glad they chose a school with a holistic approach to wellness.

“The Wicker Center is very nice; it has everything you need, which is important,” Steriti said. “A lot of first-year students have trouble adjusting to college, so having counseling in the same place as medical help is great.”

“It’s a really good idea,” Connors added. “It would be inconvenient and stressful to have to go somewhere else for either counseling or sickness.”

Union’s leadership recognizes this as well, and has made expansion of the College’s integrated approach to wellness— caring for the whole student (mind, body and spirit)—a priority of its revised Strategic Plan.

The new Wicker Wellness Center, dedicated at Homecoming in October, sits next to Alumni Gym and is the home of Health Services and the Eppler-Wolff Center for Psychological Services. It has inspired the College to dedicate this year to promoting a culture of wellness on campus.

“Silliman Hall, where health and counseling were located previously, was not appropriate for a school of our quality or size. So I was very enthusiastic about improving things,” said trustee Bill Wicker ’71. “The Wicker Center will be one of the most visited buildings in any given year. Something used by so many students should be beautiful, comfortable, functional, and located in a central place.”

Wicker, and his wife Pamela, gave the lead gift that made the center possible. The project was also supported by Nancy Eppler-Wolff ’75 and her husband, John H. Wolff. The second floor is dedicated to Psychological Services, named in their honor. Other donors include Norman A. Lasda ’69, Charles M. Wilson and Amy Bermingham (parents of Jack Wilson ’14), Mr. and Mrs. Ronald DePoalo (parents of Daniel DePoalo ’14), and Dr. and Mrs. Marlon S. Rosenbaum (parents of Elliott Rosenbaum ’15). Life Trustee Neil Golub and his wife, Jane, also supported the center with their gift of the reception area.
“As a clinical psychologist, I am very aware of the tough social, emotional and mental health issues college students are facing,” said Eppler-Wolff, a former trustee and inaugural chair of the President’s Council. “And today, we understand that the mind is part of the body and cannot be treated separately. For example, a student experiencing psychological symptoms (sadness, distractibility) may also experience physical symptoms (sleepiness, pain management issues), and even compromised immune function (frequent colds).”

“By working collaboratively, psychologists, physicians and others can help the student address his or her issues comprehensively, so that he or she returns to optimal functioning as quickly as possible,” she continued.

Marcus Hotaling, director of Psychological Services, knows the truth of this as well. He’s pleased Union is taking its commitment to the whole person a bit farther than many of its peers.

“Most colleges are just starting to focus on the whole person,” he said. “They are integrating health and counseling centers into one office, but the idea of greater collaboration with athletics and religious life is somewhat unique to Union.”
It’s also what invigorates the College’s culture of wellness, which nurtures not only mind and body, but spirit too.

The mind

Students sitting on one of the College's lawns.

“The new Wicker center has made it possible for us to do even more for our students,” Hotaling said. “The biggest survey complaints we would get from students about their experiences in our old location, in Silliman Hall, was that the waiting room was uncomfortable and the wait-times were too long.”

Neither of these are issues any longer. Inside Wicker, a spacious, upstairs waiting room (separate from the one utilized by Health Services patients) welcomes students, and three more offices staffed by qualified counselors cut wait-times drastically.
This is hugely important because of demand and need, Hotaling said. “Last year, we saw 473 unique students for a total of 2,932 appointments. This is slightly above 22 percent of the student body. Over the last two years, we have seen about 50 percent of each graduating class.”

Students here seek counseling services for the same concerns most people their age want help.

“The main reasons are anxiety and depression,” Hotaling said. “They might be anxious about social interactions or academics or depressed about a relationship ending. This tends to be the trend nationally as well.”

Union can now capitalize on its place in this national picture too, thanks to the completely paperless records system at Wicker. It allows the College’s patient intake data to be shared with the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State University. No personal, identifying information is ever given to CCMH, only generalized statistics like reasons for visits.

“This allows us to compare ourselves with other schools our size to see where we’re behind or where we’re excelling year to year,” Hotaling said. “It will help us establish baselines and do even more for our students, programming to the needs of the campus. For example, if more and more students are indicating difficulties in relationships, we can build a program about healthy relationships.”

Union’s interdepartmental cohesiveness is equally beneficial.

“I’ve worked at larger schools where you just refer students to another office, you don’t know the people there, you just know a name,” Hotaling said. “But here, I know them and they know me.”

“Students come to Union for the small liberal arts community, and we do not let them down in that. We are all willing to work together to make sure the student is the first priority,” he continued. “This level of collaboration is crucial to caring for the whole person.”

Why? Mental health is affected by other aspects of wellness that might seem unrelated to the brain itself. Take diet, for instance.

According to a January 2013 Psychology Today article, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (like salmon), have been shown to reduce symptoms of schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Similarly, spinach, broccoli and lentils are high in folic acid. Too little folate, and other B vitamins, has been linked to higher rates of depression, fatigue and insomnia.

The body (diet)

Students getting something to eat at the school's main cafeteria

David Gaul, director of Dining Services, understands the importance of food to wellbeing. It’s why the entire Dining Services team is continually striving to expand its initiatives to give students, faculty and staff healthy (and tasty) meal choices.

One such initiative, the anchor of several other related efforts, is the Mindful program. Launched in September, it offers healthy choices and educates its consumers at the same time.

“The nutritional content of all meals is displayed prominently on a menu board at each serving station,” Gaul said. “It makes it easy for students, faculty and staff to be more aware—more mindful— of what they’re eating.”

“Each item on the Mindful menu is also barcoded, so diners can scan the nutritional information right into their phone, for use with the MyFitnessPal App,” he added.

Made available through the partnership of MyFitnessPal and Sodexo, the College’s food supply vendor, the app is free to download and compatible with most mobile devices. It allows individuals to track their food consumption and compare it with goals they’ve set for calories, carbs, fat and so on.

And if diners would rather speak with a licensed dietician about the nutritional value of their food, they’ll have that option too. A term-by-term initiative, the campus dietician will be available in dining halls twice a month as part of Rate My Plate.

“Students can build their plates as they normally would and then stop by the dietician’s table to learn exactly what they’re eating—how many carbs or vitamins their chosen items have,” Gaul said.

If this wasn’t enough, Simple Servings is being unveiled this year in Upper Class Dining too. Offered during lunch and dinner, this permanent station provides allergen-free choices to students with food sensitivities. It compliments My Zone, a similar program already installed at West Dining.

“These programs build on our existing dedication to dietary wellness, like our work with local vendors for organic meats and sauces and our support of vegetarian and vegan needs with our specialized offerings in the O3 café,” Gaul said. “We understand how important it is to promote good eating.”

Indeed, dietary choices can impact many aspects of life, even academic success. A 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that U.S. high school students with higher grades were less likely to be physically inactive (i.e. not playing sports, watching lots of TV) and engage in unhealthy dietary behaviors (i.e. regular consumption of soda).

The College’s own Cay Anderson- Hanley, associate professor of psychology, has made similar findings in her research. Though focused on older people, she’s found that elderly individuals who lift weights are better at planning, decision-making and multitasking after a month-long strengthening, nonaerobic exercise program.

Here at Union, opportunities to get your heart pumping (and your brain finely tuned) abound.

The body (exercise)

Students excercising on a treadmill

At Alumni Gym, “we offer fitness classes for students, faculty and staff—everything from kickboxing, boot camp, Zumba, Pilates, yoga and spinning. During winter term, we had a total of 16 classes,” said Mike Polsinelli, director of Wellness and assistant director of Intramurals and Recreation. “There are also programs solely for faculty and staff, including personal health assessment, biometric health screening, the Lifepoints Program, and Lunchtime Health Seminars.”

“Whether through fitness classes or intramurals, we offer something for everyone in the College community,” he added.

And the community seems to be taking advantage of this.

“Participation in our wellness classes has been high and the programs are very successful,” Polsinelli said. “With the addition of spinning classes this fall, our efforts have been elevated to another level.”

Going forward, he’s excited raise the bar even more, for the benefit of everyone at Union.

“I work collaboratively with Human Resources, especially with Eric Noll and Jennifer Blessing. They are very supportive of wellness initiatives and HR provides great financial and organizational support,” Polsinelli said. “We also have a Wellness Committee that consists of faculty and staff that is active, and with the opening of the new Wicker Center, I look forward to working with their staff to offer joint programs.”

Such teamwork between departments will only strengthen Union’s ability to provide valuable exercise opportunities, and thereby, grow its culture of whole-person wellness.

“Physical wellness plays an important part in overall mind, body and spiritual health,” Polsinelli said. “These classes are opportunities for people who want to 'live healthier lives, want to reduce stress, meet new people and just feel better.

“Simply being physically active helps change your life for the better.”

Indeed, the Mayo Clinic states that exercise improves mood, promotes better sleep, controls weight, and combats illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and even the common cold.

In 2010, USA Today reported on a study by David C. Nieman (Appalachian State University) in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. The research found that the frequency of colds among people who exercised five or more days a week was 46 percent less than those who were active one day or less a week.

The body (medical health)

A Union College nurse speaking with student

Illnesses like colds are the most common reason students visit Health Services.

“Most of our work is sick care,” said Health Services Director Angela Stefanatos. “But we offer a wide range of services, from health education, term abroad physicals, and gynecological and sexual health to immunizations, blood draws and vision tests.”
“Last year, for all services, we had 5,000 student visits,” she added.

The in-demand center also has its own small formulary, and works closely with a local pharmacy to deliver additional medications directly to campus. A therapy dog named Jenna is also on-hand three days a week, and a taxi service is available to take students to see area specialists.

Health Services, like Psychological Services, is also paperless and utilizes an appointment-based system.

“It’s a very good system that allows us to be very efficient, as does the new building itself,” said Stefanatos. “We have more space, with a wonderful waiting room that assures comfort and exams rooms that assure privacy. Our new location beside Alumni Gym is also fantastic; it puts wellness front and center in the community, and means we are easily accessible for all students.”

“And the fact that we share a building with Psychological Services is also critical,” she continued. “We’ve become more integrated—health and counseling. We collaborate closely, as we should, and can see to students’ needs in tandem, giving them much better whole-person care.”

And that’s just perfect for Carolyn Connors ’17.

“I love the sense of community here, I didn’t want to be anonymous at a big school,” she said. “Everyone here is so caring, including the nurses at the health center. No one at Union is just another patient.”

The individualized nature of the Union experience also extends to support of students’ spiritual needs, an integral part of their overall health.

The spirit

Union College Hillel students

“Spirituality involves seeking after meaning, purpose and authenticity in life. It’s about easy access to gratitude, about a sense of being part of something larger than you,” said Viki Brooks, director of the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, and campus Protestant minister. “When these are in balance with everything else a person does, that’s spiritual wellness. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that Union is recognizing this.”

“It speaks to our understanding that, as a lot of research suggests, spirituality and religion is very individual at the college age,” she added. “This is why we offer our students expansive opportunities for engagement and exploration of faith.”
There are 14 religious and spiritual groups on campus—open to all—from the American Yoga Association and the Association of Atheists and Agnostics to the Muslim Student Association, Hillel, and the Catholic Student Association.

The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life also coordinates wellness meditation at the Wicker Center, prayer and meditation in Reamer Campus Center, and has plans to bring Chakra dance, Reiki energy practitioners and spiritual counselors to campus.
All of these offerings will help Union’s diverse student community meet its diverse spiritual health needs, which in turn will help maintain physical and mental health. How? Consider the intimate relationship many faiths have with the body.

“Muslim prayer is very physical. If, suddenly, a person was unable to pray 5 times a day, they would feel disconnected from their community and their sense of self,” Brooks said. “That can produce anxiety that will impact physical and mental health.”
“I know, when I’m out of whack with my ability it pray, I don’t feel well,” she added.

Food and diet is also integrally related to faith.

“All of the religious laws about food are also about wellness. For Jews and Muslims, the purity of meat has as much to do with community as it does with health,” Brooks said. “Eating kosher at Sabbath, you know the animal was treated well and was raised well. And the prayers said in Islam and Judaism before the animal is slaughtered establishes important connections between what is eaten and the divine.”

“What is eaten also obviously impacts health,” she added. “Hindus, for example, are mostly vegetarian, which certainly affects the body.”

In understanding the complex and deep connections between one aspect of wellness and another, and in promoting exploration of these connections, Bill Wicker knows his alma mater is doing great things for its students.

“I don’t think you realize how valuable this kind of thing is until well into your adult life, but it’s essential for students to be aware of all aspects of wellness early on,” he said. “Adult life is about physical health, mental health, spiritual health and intellectual vigor. Union is increasing its support of all these things, and that will only make its graduates more complete, successful, healthful people.”


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