Balancing the Life of the Mind


From December 2015

By Madison Lands
Photo by Mark Campbell

Wellapalooza descended upon the quad in early Autumn Quarter. Friends chatted as they browsed tables topped with snacks and health pamphlets, played games, and got free bike tune-ups. They took pictures at the body-positive photo booth, holding affirmations like “I woke up like this.” A pumpkin-decorating table and the much-anticipated therapy dogs provided stress relief. Attendees waited patiently in a long line for a free flu shot. Health Promotion and Wellness’ (HPW) biannual Wellapalooza was a major success—students, faculty, and staff alike walked away feeling refreshed and ready to tackle the next item on their to-do list.

“There’s a good, healthy energy here. It’s a comfortable way to seek health information,” says Cathryn J., a fourth-year in the College. “Events like this make me feel like the University cares.

Wellapalooza has been a UChicago staple since Autumn 2012. Many booths have returned each year, but this year HPW emphasized their new framework, which promotes holistic health through seven facets of wellness: emotional, environmental, intellectual, spiritual, physical, financial, and social. HPW labeled each table at Wellapalooza with one or more of seven colors to indicate which facet that table supports.

The facets were adopted in January when Julie Edwards was hired as the new Director of HPW. Edwards has a master of health administration degree and a public health perspective. The seven facets of wellness emphasize preventative care to increase the health of the community as a whole.

“We try to keep the framework simple, because being well will mean different things for everyone,” says Edwards. “It’s really about finding an optimal balance between each of these areas.

Edwards sees HPW as a catalyst on campus—they ensure that services are available to support each type of wellness and encourage students to seek out those services, particularly by organizing events to promote them. This includes establishing collaborations between departments, such as a recent project to connect UChicago GRAD and the Office of the Bursar to create financial literacy programs. They’re also developing long-term, large-scale plans to promote and improve environmental health. While Edwards may not have personal expertise in each area of wellness, she ensures that HPW connects students with resources on campus that do.

While HPW stresses a holistic approach, they note that certain facets of wellness require extra attention on college campuses. In line with national trends, Edwards notes that the UChicago student body benefits from specific attention to emotional health issues, such as anxiety and loneliness, and social and physical health issues, like alcohol use and body image. Most of their programming overlaps to cover multiple facets of health. For example, the quarterly Pet Love program brings back the therapy dogs to promote both emotional and social wellness, and their finals week study sessions, which serve late-night food and coffee in uniquely UChicago locations like the Logan Center, attend to emotional and intellectual wellness. These programs help students think about wellness in new ways while working as preventative measures to increase confidence and resilience.

HPW works alongside the other offices in the Student Health & Counseling Services department and a 35-person advisory board made up of staff, students, and faculty to identify the facets of wellness with which students need support, receive feedback on campus health, and target specific areas for improvement. For example, after staff members indicated they felt unprepared to assist students who divulged mental health concerns, HPW  faculty and staff this year in a program called Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour course that teaches participants how to identify, understand, and respond to signs of mental illnesses. Eventually, they hope to train groups of students in the same program to assist their peers.

Students are already assisting their peers through other HPW offerings.The bulk of HPW’s quarterly programming is done through their Peer Health Advocates (PHA) program, in which students are trained to support and empower their fellow students to make informed health decisions. Edwards explains that a peer model is effective, because it helps students relate to the material more. PHA runs the Body Project, which offers student-led workshops on the media’s effects on body image and body-positive workout classes.

“I joined the Body Project because I felt that no one talks about the detrimental effects that the media can have on individuals and communities. I love being a part of this group because I think it helps spread body positivity at a place where students don’t always realize how amazing they are,” says Jenny C., a fourth-year. “As long as I can make one person feel better, that’s the best difference in the world.”

Other PHA programs include WellCzar and InTouch groups, which teach students about sexual and relationship health through a series of workshops. WellCzars also distribute safer sex packets in College Housing. These programs are particularly important in the college setting, when many students are taking care of themselves for the first time or may not know where to find reliable health information. PHA prides themselves on opening up dialogue on uncomfortable, but essential, topics.;

“Some students here don’t always live healthy lifestyles. They’re very smart, but they push themselves too hard anyway,” says Sylvia C., a second-year involved in both InTouch and WellCzars. “HPW does a good job of reaching out to students in ways that work for them. Just having an office on campus to remind students about how they can be healthier in holistic ways makes a big difference."