Well-being leaders emphasize the importance of focusing on student mental health

A panel of some of Mason's top mental health and well-being experts gathered to discuss student success strategies in October. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

George Mason University student surveys conducted during the pandemic have shown increased levels of stress, anxiety, loneliness and isolation, mirroring national college student data, according to Rose Pascarell, vice president of University Life.

“I think Mason is at the forefront of responding to that proactively with our programs,” Pascarell added. “We’re trying to create a culture of well-being and equity.”

Pascarell was part of a six-person panel of Mason experts on mental health and well-being that discussed student success strategies as part of a week-long series of events marking President Gregory Washington’s Investiture.

“Student stress and anxiety are the greatest factors in determining student success,” President Gregory Washington said. “I wanted to have this panel to begin to evolve a collective consciousness among all of us around mental health issues.”

In addition to Pascarell, panelists included Rachel Wernicke, associate dean and chief mental health officer, University Life; Nance Lucas, executive director and chief well-being officer, Center for the Advancement of Well-Being; Leah Adams, assistant professor, Department of Psychology and Women and Gender Studies Program; Elisa Akins, psychology major, peer success coach; and Shekila Melchior, assistant professor, College of Education and Human Development.

Melchior noted the importance of well-being, diversity, and inclusion work at Mason. “Cultural competency goes beyond your stereotypical narrative to really getting to know our students and what matters to them, and honoring that,” she said.

The university is seeing a rise in the need for mental health services, Wernicke said, with Mason students seeking help for issues such as anxiety, stress, loneliness, and trauma. “We need to keep asking: What are the barriers to students seeking mental health services and how can we break them down?”

Adams said one issue is the way the huge need for mental health care often translates to a lag in obtaining services, both at Mason and in the greater community. Mason’s Center for Psychological Services is constantly working to increase accessibility to care, Adams noted. For instance, she said, the helpline that the center began for essential workers during the pandemic will eventually expand to help all community members.

Many of the students Akins serves as a peer success coach tell her they are feeling overwhelmed by stress due to time management issues and academic pressures, she said. “College is a stressful time. There’s so much information coming at you from all directions.”

Provost Mark Ginsberg noted that there is a level of compassion fatigue among faculty.

Wernicke said creating community and sharing stories is one way to relieve  that.

“It’s really an ethical imperative for faculty and staff to engage in self-care, because otherwise we could cause harm,” Wernicke said.

The Mason Chooses Kindness initiative has brought our Mason community together around the pursuit of greater well-being, Lucas said. “If we can all commit to just being kind to each other, that’s going to really shift how we see each other and increase our well-being around our common humanity.”

As the pandemic continues and Mason leaders respond to changing mental health and well-being needs, “I think we’re a community in recovery, and we need to be continually learning,” Pascarell pointed out.

“The connections to well-being in education really matter,” Lucas said. The Center for the Advancement of Well-Being works to help all members of the Mason community  thrive, she said. “Our center’s role as a catalyst for well-being is to have well-being be in the DNA of the whole university.”