In the midst of a semester full of new challenges, Ellie Sturgis offered a simple phrase she learned during snow skiing lessons as a helpful reminder for Virginia Tech students.

“Bend your knees and look for trees,” said Sturgis, director for Cook Counseling Center. “What that meant was, be flexible and be alert to your environment. And I think those are two skills right now that our students could use.”

Sturgis was one of five faculty members who took part in a virtual conversation focused on mental health on Oct. 5. The discussion came at a critical time — near the midway point of the semester while being surrounded by ongoing, stressful circumstances in the nation and world.

“Now we have the additional challenges of the pandemic, a racial reckoning, a recession, national politics, and we have serious concerns about the mental health and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff,” said President Tim Sands.

Sands and Sturgis were joined by Chris Wise, assistant vice president for student affairs; Laura Hungerford, department head for population sciences in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine; and Chris Flynn, executive director of Mental Health Initiatives.

Mental health has long been a priority at Virginia Tech. In April 2019, the university’s Mental Health Task Force presented a report on the status of the university’s needs and efforts in this area. Since that time, the task force, which is charged by Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke, has put their findings to work.

“We knew that we didn’t want this task force to be something for people to read and sit on a shelf,” said Wise, who leads the task force. Hungerford and Flynn also serve on the task force.

Since 2016, Cook Counseling Center has added 20 new full-time clinicians, two additional wage clinicians, and a handful of other positions, including two positions aimed at proactive wellness programs – one related to mental health initiatives, the other to financial wellness. It has also planned to embed three counselors in specific colleges on campus to address the unique circumstances students face in each.

The task force’s report revealed that while the need for services on campus was growing, it remains consistent with the needs reported by other universities across the country. It also highlighted that most often students are developing mental health concerns prior to coming to Virginia Tech.

“It actually looks like an increasing wave of students are coming to the university, rather than students come here and suddenly beginning to have mental health problems,” Hungerford said.

More recent surveys — one in February 2020 and one in April 2020 — conducted on the student population reveal that students did well overall during the previous semester changes due to the pandemic.

“Surveys said that students were studying more and that alcohol use was down,” said Flynn, who added the percentage of students who said they were very satisfied with the university experience also rose.

As the fall semester nears its halfway point, Sturgis said it seems the pandemic and other circumstances aren’t creating new mental health struggles as much as they are elevating existing issues.

“They may have the same symptomatic pattern as before, but their distress level may be higher because of the pandemic,” she said.

She suggested students making a concerted effort to ensure they are getting enough sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition, all of which could be beneficial.

“If they take care of those basic needs, then they can go to take care of those academic needs,” Sturgis said.

Wise said one of the overall goals of all Virginia Tech’s wellness efforts is to not only help students with the issues they face, but to equip them to help others and help usher in positive societal change.

“It’s one thing to step into the counseling center and get the kind of treatment you need to help you manage what’s on your plate while you’re here, but it’s another thing to learn about the ways you’ve helped yourself and then use those ways to help others,” he said.

Sturgis said that mindset of looking out for others is a characteristic that makes the Virginia Tech community special and gives it an advantage when it comes to addressing mental health.

“I think most of the time we’re most happy when we’re serving others or making a difference in someone else’s life, and the whole way we structure Virginia Tech is to be of service to one another,” Sturgis said. “Our students look out for one another … and I think that’s a real protective feature.”

— Written by Travis Williams

Emergency numbers

For students:

Cook Counseling Center, 540-231-6557

For Faculty and Staff:

Hokie Wellness (Employee Assistance Program), 540-231-8878

For Everyone:

New River Valley Community Services Board (ACCESS), 540-961-8400

Raft Crisis Hotline, 540-961-8400

Connect (Carilion Health Care), 1-800-284-8898

ARC (LewisGale Montgomery), 1-804-327-5191

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255

ULifeline, Text START to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-8255

The Trevor Lifeline (Suicide Prevention for LGBT Youth), 866-488-7386