How one university made wellness top priority at the presidential level

The University of West Georgia's holistic approach includes the creation of a key position within its cabinet.

A triumvirate of crises exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic—mental health, food insecurity and financial instability—have prompted higher education leaders to take a deep look at how well they are providing resources and services to students, staff and faculty. Well-being has become a top priority, but getting help to individuals hasn’t been smooth. Siloed departments, red tape and a lack of marketing about available programs mean that assistance can go unnoticed or underutilized.

Bridgette Stewart

So forward-thinking presidents like Brendan Kelly at the University of West Georgia are raising the importance of health and well-being by helping create administrative-level leadership positions. In February, UWG promoted Bridgette Stewart as its new Chief Wellness Officer, a role becoming increasingly popular across higher ed but one that surprisingly doesn’t exist at many institutions. Stewart’s position is one of the first in the Georgia system.

“You’re used to seeing and hearing Chief Health Officer for health-care organizations, but not in higher ed,” says Stewart, who views health as focused on the physical and wellness as more of an overall holistic measure. “When it comes time for me to retire, whenever that may be, I hope I’m not the only one. I would love to see all institutions, in at least within the state of Georgia, have someone sitting at this level, which would also mean that they have leadership at the presidential level that values health and wellness.”

Kelly and UWG have provided Stewart with that voice, recognizing the need for someone to lead and bring together campus factions to deal with this epidemic. Multiple peer-reviewed studies have shown that the mental health crisis alone has afflicted more than 80% of college students. Suicidal ideation is also uncomfortably high. Affordability and other health outcomes also feed into the wellness component, so it makes sense, Stewart says, to have a leader who can handle the holistic side.

More from UB on health and wellness

“The time is right to have those conversations. The time is right to invest,” says Stewart, who directs the school’s Wolf Wellness Lab in its College of Education and serves on the National Wellness Institute board of directors. “We cannot continue to look at health and wellness as something that people simply do in their spare time. We have to look at it from a systems approach, a cultural approach and from a multicultural standpoint. We’ve got so many different needs. Resources in higher education are not easy to come by. So we need to be able to pull what resources we have together and use those in multiple places.”

How odd would it be for West Georgia, for example, to build so many of the supports and resources listed below and not have a leader charged with ensuring they all work across a broad university?

  • A comprehensive Counseling Center
  • A Center for Integrative Wellness, which also features programming at the university level.
  • A Mental Health First Aid instructor program that will train instructors to teach three courses a year so faculty and staff can take mental health first aid.
  • QPR (Question, Persuade and Refer), a suicide prevention training program
  • The Sharpen Colleges platform, an offsite app that gives students 24/7 access to resources
  • Dine West’s campus program to help with food insecurity
  • Student support focusing on food and hygiene

“President Kelly really saw the programming and the career paths in health and wellness,” she says. “Our executive team believes that health and wellness is the foundation for progressing students, retaining students and for them to thrive in their careers,” Stewart says. “Mental health is the key at every institution across the country.”

University Business sat down with Stewart to learn more about West Georgia’s programs, wellness and her new role:

How is the overarching wellness system working at West Georgia?

We have a lot of the services in place, it’s just that people haven’t made the connection yet. And that’s a big piece of what my job is. We have academic coaching, which we feel is an outlet for mental health. We’re noticing that we have a lot of students who are struggling with anxiety because of testing and because of time management and stress. Most people don’t make the connection that those are related directly back to health and wellness. We have an executive team of individuals that I meet with on a consistent basis—a director of counseling, director of university recreation and director of health services. Because I have been here for quite some time, and I am an alum, I am personally invested. When we can function optimally within our current environment, based on the dimensions of wellness, then we start to see people thrive and succeed in what they’re doing.

You have a campus that is 80% commuters. Does that represent additional challenges?

There are challenges, but we look at them as opportunities. We’re not just servicing the traditional undergraduate students. Students can be in an online format vs. face-to-face, or they could be hybrid. We have so many different populations; it’s just finding out where and what their needs are. The biggest challenge for us is resources, You’ve got be creative. That could mean policy and procedure need to change. It could be that the way we do business is unlike the way we’ve ever done it before. In higher ed, we cannot continue to function the same way that we did 10 years ago. Times are completely different.

How do you think getting the message out about support and services can be improved across your system, and really, in higher education?

How do we start to have conversations within our recruiting message to students, not just that we have excellent academic programs, but there are pieces we value here from your wellness perspective? That needs to be embedded when we’re recruiting students or when we’re talking to potential donors or potential partners. It’s truly a culture piece, and that involves having wellness be in spaces that they’ve never been in. Whether it’s spiritual or social, mental or emotional, or environmental or physical wellness, we’re going to be having those conversations.

You mentioned the six modes of wellness above, which have been promoted by the National Wellness Institute. How important are those to the success of your overall program?

Our framework is really driven by the needs of those we serve and powered by evidence-based best practices. We look at that through the lens of three things: Is it sustainable? Are we being collaborative? And are we looking at things through a multicultural lens? It’s integrative, it’s holistic, it’s driven by the needs. You’ve got to have multiple ways for individuals to provide feedback, not just another survey. In a lot of institutions, everything is siloed. That was the reason why it was important to have a framework and to have someone like myself, who sits at the table and their goal is to break down those silos. It’s bringing those entities to the table and saying, let’s start to have those conversations.

For those interested in pursuing the creation of a Chief Wellness Officer role, the Education Advisory Board (EAB) provides an outstanding resource for exploration of the role, with a series of guidelines, questions colleges should ask and examples from a dozen universities that have launched those positions.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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