College Holds Third Annual Wellness Challenge
Issue   |   Wed, 02/24/2016 - 01:02
Students took part in the Grit and Resiliancy training offered as part of the Wellness Challenge on Thursday, Feb. 18. Participants shared experiences of personal difficulties and how they overcame them.

The Wellness Challenge is a four-week program aiming to promote mental health on campus from Feb. 1 to March 1. This is the program’s third year, with 465 students and 144 staff and faculty participating.

The challenge is composed of a pre-assessment survey with questions assessing health and emotional and mental wellness, followed by weekly surveys evaluating individual participation in each week’s practices. Following the survey, each student receives an email with suggestions for six-seven possible activities associated with a different theme every week. The four week-long themes for the Wellness Challenge are emotional, physical, spiritual and social wellness. Participants commit to practicing each activity at least three times, which amounts to a time commitment of approximately one hour each week.
Mental Health Educator Jessica Gifford devised the challenge three years ago after attending a conference where health educators spoke about similar programs, and then created the list of activities for each week based on extensive research and experience. She said that the flexibility and limited time commitment of the Wellness Challenge were aspects designed to engage Amherst students.

“There [are] a lot of different ways you can work on improving your mental health, and it doesn’t have to be what you normally think of,” Gifford said. “In theory everybody could find at least a few activities … to incorporate into their lives.”
Last year, 110 students and 39 staff and faculty participated, an increase from the total of 55 participants in the challenge’s first year.

Results from last year’s assessment data indicated that participants experienced reduced levels of stress and loneliness at the conclusion of the challenge and at the end of the semester, compared to a control group of non-participants. Participants also showed significant positive improvements in levels of depression and anxiety.

“I really think that since I’ve been here there has been a lot more talk about mental health and wellness on campus,” Gifford said. “People really want to shift the culture. So I hope having this large of a number of people participate is a start to the tipping point of being like, OK, let’s not have such a stress-producing culture.”

This March the college will administer the bi-annual National College Health Assessment, which collects campus health data. On the 2014 survey, students indicated that a higher percentage of the student body had experienced feelings of loneliness than the national average, setting off campus-wide discussions about the college’s social climate.
Gifford hopes to see improvements in student wellness compared to what the 2014 survey results indicated.