Mental Health and Wellness Committee Releases Focus Group Results
Issue   |   Tue, 03/03/2015 - 23:19

The Mental Health and Wellness Committee recently released the results from the series of student life mental health focus groups from fall 2014. The results show that many students share similar experiences regarding issues of loneliness, belonging and social connection on campus.

The Mental Health and Wellness Committee conducted a series of eight focus groups over the past semester with six to 15 students in each group to identify the main areas of concern for students’ mental health. These groups were implemented in response to the high level of loneliness which Amherst College students reported on the National College Health Assessment, conducted in March 2014. In the survey, three out of four Amherst students expressed feeling lonely some time within the last year, a statistic that is 20 percent higher than the national average for college students.

“The purpose of the focus groups was to gather more information on student experiences and to solicit ideas to address loneliness and improve social connection on campus,” said Amherst mental health educator Jessica Gifford. Gifford said she believed that even the act of holding conversations about experiences of social connection among students would be beneficial.

Results from these facilitated group discussions highlighted particular areas of concern. According to the focus group’s report, “students felt the social options were limited, and there weren’t many opportunities to meet people and socialize outside of parties.” Many students also pointed to the lack of physical spaces on campus conducive to social mingling.

Additionally, the report said that many students saw the communities within the smaller groups of athletic teams, clubs and identity groups as coming with the cost of being exclusive and rigid.

However, the issue that was brought up most frequently by students was the fear of being vulnerable. The report said that many students described Amherst “as a culture that expects smartness, achievement, success and invulnerability from its students” and as a result, “students reported feeling that they couldn’t share vulnerability with others, and therefore dealt with problems alone.”

“I think the [theme of] ‘success vs. vulnerability’ is the most impactful, along with the idea of conceptualizing success as incorporating vulnerability, rather than the two being mutually exclusive,” Gifford said.

After identifying many of the overarching issues that many students agreed upon, groups also worked to identify what currently helps to make connections on campus.

The report said that many students did point to several programs that were effective in creating a structure for interactions across social groups, such as Pindar Field dinners, AC After Dark, CEOT trips and orientation. Other students identified feeling more connected when contributing in a role such as being a Residence Counselor, Student Health Educator or a Peer Advocate.

In response to these results, the Mental Health and Wellness Committee proposed possible future plans to address many of the social connection issues that contribute to widespread loneliness on campus. All future plans were suggestions made by the students during the focus group dicussions.

Students in the focus groups suggested adding follow-up meetings to the Pindar dinners, CEOT trips and orientation, as well as mentoring programs to facilitate student adjustment to college life and make social connections. More suggestions called for promoting meaningful involvement in an incorporated community service component through Residential Life or first-year seminars.

Many students in the focus groups said that popular conceptions of what an Amherst student should be made it difficult to admit vulnerability. The Mental Health and Wellness Committee said in its report that “It will be important to share the concerns surfaced by the focus groups with key offices, such as Admissions, Public Affairs and the orientation committee, to strategize how to feature success and accomplishments in a way that does not erode students’ sense of self.”

“I think that belonging and social connection are central to students’ well-being. How can we shift the social norm toward inclusion and connection without adding high social expectations to the burden of what students are expected to achieve?” Gifford said.

More detailed information and future plans from the focus group results will be presented to the entire campus community and discussed at an open meeting on Wednesday, March 25 at 6 p.m. in the Cole Assembly Room.

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