UA tests new wellness program; twice-weekly classes focus on improving student lifestyles

Posted: November 6, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

FAYETTEVILLE — Seated mostly on yoga mats or cushions, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville students closed their eyes and listened.

“Bring your awareness fully and completely to your breath,” said Ed Mink, director of wellness and health promotion at UA’s Pat Walker Health Center.

The lesson on mindfulness took place not in a yoga class, but in a new eight-week course offered by UA this fall called Wellness U. Topics to be covered include nutrition, relationships and how fitness can be a part of everyday activity.

“It’s not just ideas,” said Brooke Bynum, 19, describing how she appreciates learning how “to apply things that they teach.”

The university capped enrollment to 10 students for what is considered a pilot project, said Susan Rausch, a UA health educator at the health center who helped design the course. Students meet twice weekly for 50-minute classes and receive an hour of academic credit, with the university looking to see how the course might improve their well-being.

“We developed a pre-test, and we will be evaluating the impact of the program,” Rausch said, with more sections possibly offered in the future.

The university for many years has offered academic credit courses on different wellness topics, and more than 11,000 students attended wellness classes in the 2016-17 academic year, according to Rausch. Topics for those courses include mindfulness, assertiveness training, and a course called “resilience and thriving” that Mink described as being about positive psychology.

The new Wellness U course takes a more holistic approach aimed at improving different facets of a student’s lifestyle, Rausch said.

“So many people look at health as only one-dimensional, as only physical health,” Rausch said. But UA has developed a model that features eight facets of wellness: social, environmental, occupational, spiritual, financial, emotional and intellectual, in addition to physical.

Along with introducing topics, the Wellness U course “really does have a strong skill-building component, where students will actually learn how to develop a plan, how to stick to a plan,” Rausch said.

Personal health courses have become common at the majority of colleges and universities, according to research published last year in the Journal of American College Health. Researchers, based on a sampling of 310 public and private colleges and universities, concluded that 55.8 percent of schools offered at least one personal health course.

Dayna Henry, an author of the study and an assistant professor at James Madison University in Virginia, said in an email that the UA course would have been counted in the study as such a personal health course.

In the academic article, Henry and co-authors cited previous research findings that students “typically report increased awareness and knowledge related to health.” Henry and co-authors stated that while “some studies have documented changes in health behaviors,” the evidence has typically been “self-reported and short-term.”

But the authors also noted the health needs of college students, citing 2014 National College Health Assessment survey data that found nearly one in three students reporting that stress negatively affected their academic performance. Almost one in four said the same about anxiety, while 14 percent said depression affected their schoolwork.

Mink said college students at UA are affected by similar issues.

“Anxiety, stress-related concerns and depression, those are the top three,” Mink said.

UA’s Pat Walker Health Center has expanded its counseling department recently to include a full-time, licensed mental health clinician with an office based in student housing. The university employs a mix of full- and part-time mental health workers. Based on their hours worked, UA has the equivalent of 16 full-time clinician employees, said UA spokesman Zac Brown.

As part of the Wellness U course, Mink said he hopes to expand wellness coaching at the university.

Mink was quick to differentiate coaching from counseling and mental health treatment.

“Coaching is not therapy. There are people who truly break down, who have diagnosed conditions, that will always need treatment,” Mink said. But UA students, who pay a $7.25 per credit hour student health fee, can sign up for free wellness coaching sessions, Mink said.

Through Wellness U, he hopes to recruit and train undergraduates to serve as peer coaches. With supervised group sessions, Mink said coaching could then reach more UA students.

In the classroom, Mink, a compact man with a voice that alternated between booming and a calming whisper, told students he spends hours at a time without his phone. He said that was likely not feasible for them, but he advised students to take breaks from checking their phones between classes as a way to reduce anxiety.

Bynum, a sophomore public relations and advertising student, said afterward that going without her phone didn’t seem very realistic.

“Everything’s so last minute,” she said. “I have to check my phone every day for emails because my teacher might cancel my class, or I might miss a study session if I miss a text from my classmate, or just like a social thing.

“You can’t, just like, not be on your phone all day,” Bynum said.