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Alice Mahoney / Senior Staff Photographer

Samuel Seward, associate vice president and medical director of Health Services, talks to students at the Wellness Summit in November.

This semester, Columbia has seen more groups than ever participating in the now-established discussion of wellness on campus.

While the discussions are not new, many involved feel that the conversation has grown this semester, producing more collaboration and pushes for specific policy changes. But the past few months have also seen a rise in some students questioning the purpose of the movement.

To address some of these questions, SWP published a report Sunday night that explained the group was working with administrators to create a centralized FAQ page with links to Columbia resources for students and a “mindfulness” seminar for all first years.

The report also addressed criticisms leveled in a recent Bwog post titled “On Wellness, Semantics, Transparency, and Other Buzzwords,” published after the Student Wellness Project's Wellness Summit this semester, which argued that the summit was a waste of time and criticized the meeting's goals and the way that SWP operates generally.  

The comments on the post quickly turned to criticism of individual SWP members as well as Bob Sun, CC '14 and vice president for policy on Columbia College Student Council, whom the post called out for his role in the Wellness Summit.

Such comments, like wellness, are a familiar problem at Columbia, and students often dismiss online commenters' opinions as not reflective of the larger community. But those involved in the wellness dialogue on campus seem to be using this criticism to continue pushing their priorities forward.

“The sentiment behind it I think I understand,” Sun said of the Bwog post. “It's a larger one of ‘Oh, it's been two years, wellness has become a buzzword, there's all this talking and nothing is happening, all of this is BS.' And I understand that.”

However, Sun said he did not appreciate the way the criticisms were presented or their specific points.

“I think the criticism is unfair. SWP is not some monolithic thing: ‘We've taken over the wellness conversation.' I think they're a group, and they have a place and a venue to discuss it,” Sun said. “It's a group of people that are really passionate about this, and it's great to have it and to be involved, and they do see themselves as a place of dialogue.”

Some Bwog commenters also pointed to wellness-focused student groups other than SWP, arguing that they should get more recognition for their work. One such group was Nightline, the anonymous peer counseling hotline.

“It is obvious that there are a number of opinions surrounding this discussion and that we haven't come to a firm consensus of how to best pursue wellness, but at least the conversation is being had and is coming from a place of wanting to take care of ourselves more. This in itself is already a big step in the direction of self-awareness and self-care,” Nightline directors Orly Michaeli, CC '14, and Zoe Pinter, GS/JTS '14, said in an email.

SWP members echoed Sun's and Nightline's sentiments, saying they think the Bwog post misunderstood the group's focus, and that regardless of more specific critiques, they believe the conversation is still worth having.

“Anytime you get something inserted into the mainstream, of course people will say they're sick and tired of talking about it,” SWP co-leader Andrea Shang, BC '14 and a Spectator news writer, said. “I'm not going to say that wellness is on par with talking about race or gender, but those are all issues about which frequently you hear: ‘Oh, you know, I'm tired of talking about these things—why do we have to do it?' And, well, because it's important.”

SWP's other leader, Ari Schuman, CC '15, added that he sees the group as serving a different purpose now than when it started, which might contribute to some of the confusion for those outside it.

“I think we've succeeded in our first goal, or at least Wilfred's first goal, which was to generate discussion about wellness on campus,” he said, referring to Wilfred Chan, CC '13 and founder of SWP. “So I think our goals are shifting less toward generating discussion and more toward policy change.”

After this semester's Wellness Summit, Schuman said one of SWP's main takeaways was that students would like a centralized source of information to help combat institutional stressors. 

While the group  has several additional priorities for next semester, SWP and many other groups—such as Columbia College Student Council, Active Minds, and Students of AMF—have focused on the perception of Counseling and Psychological Services this fall.

After SWP released its report last semester outlining recommendations for CPS among a list of ways to improve wellness on campus, the topic gained traction among many students. Since then, though, CPS has released data showing that many of the assertions made in SWP's report lacked information.

“We freely admit that the grounds for the proposal last year may not have been as solid as we thought. In our defense, it was because there just wasn't that much data on it. In a way, we always saw the report as a jumping-off point­—it was not an end-all,” Shang said.

Specific criticisms in the report dealt with wait times for students to get counseling appointments and with confusion over the existence of a session limit.

“It's too bad that they couldn't survey a larger group of students, or that they perhaps drew large generalizations that turned out not to be representative—at least with the students who I've spoken to,” CPS Executive Director Richard Eichler said.

According to Eichler, the average time from when a student does a preliminary phone interview with CPS until their first appointment is 5.67 days—a number he emphasized is affected by the student's availability as much as that of CPS.

As for the widely held belief in a session limit, Eichler has clarified this semester that such a limit does not exist. In conversations with student leaders and in his remarks at SWP's summit, Eichler explained that the myth persists even within his own staff, and that staff members' varying explanations of the non-rule may contribute to students' confusion.

“We can't provide unlimited care, and there's also certain kinds of specialty care that we're not equipped, nor is any college counseling center equipped, to provide,” Eichler said.

However, Eichler added that with more than 30 staff members and now seven satellite offices to supplement the main Lerner location for CPS, he feels his staff is able to meet Columbia's counseling needs.

“The great majority of students that we see get all of the treatment that they want or need on campus. About 30 percent of the students we see, tops, are eventually referred out for off-campus services,” he said.

With this semester devoted to clarifying these types of rumors and advertising CPS' statistics, the various groups working with CPS hope to focus on increasing access and decreasing stigma for those who still don't take advantage of the service.

In addition to being a member of SWP, Rakhi Agrawal, BC '14, is co-president of Active Minds and leads Students of AMF, so she has been highly involved in these discussions.

“We're trying to get the students who may need CPS but aren't seeing them already in there. So we're trying to find out why they're not going,” she said. 

In her role with Active Minds, she said the group has been working closely with Anne Goldfield, associate director of outreach for CPS. “We've been working with them on programmatic things and planning events, but also dispelling myths and working with them to improve their image,” she said.

As for CCSC, Sun said he particularly wants to focus on reaching out to specific communities who are more reticent to seek help from CPS or might feel that CPS doesn't address their issues as well as it could. This includes cultural minorities and queer and transgender students, he said.

Sun said this semester has been particularly fruitful in terms of working with other student groups. He pointed to the fact that Columbia Queer Alliance came to CCSC to discuss the group's thoughts on CPS once it heard this was a priority for the council.

As this semester winds down and the various groups prepare to continue pushing for policy changes next semester, all of the students working on these issues say that none of their ideas represent an immediate solution to the wellness problem, or an end to the wellness conversation.

“Even if we work with CPS to have 100 percent patient satisfaction, which is never going to happen with any medical service, the work wouldn't be done,” Sun said. “CPS is a part of student well-being, obviously, but it's not all of student well-being.”

The SWP leaders agreed, saying that while they want to focus on specific policy initiatives, they hope that the campus community does not give up onwellness conversation anytime soon.

“If we succeed, then yeah, we should go away,” Schuman said of SWP. “But these problems aren't going to go away. I'm not saying SWP is going to exist for the next 20 years, but there's no way that the institutional problems that exist on this campus are going to disappear without someone continuing to work on them.”  |  @abby_abrams

SWP Student Wellness Project Nightline Bob Sun CPS stress
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