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The Dartmouth
June 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Verbum Ultimum: Baby Steps toward Student Wellness

Small changes in the classroom could have a big impact on student mental health and wellbeing.

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Mental health and wellness is always on the minds of Dartmouth students. Since it convened last March, this Editorial Board has published no less than four articles on various mental health topics, from the JED Foundation to the collective trauma of losing five of our classmates in less than three years. Similarly, David Millman ’23 and Jessica Chiriboga ’24, president and vice president of Dartmouth Student Government, ran on a platform of expanding and improving the mental healthcare options available to students. 

Fortunately — and perhaps a bit surprisingly — these conversations seem not to have fallen on wholly deaf ears: Last term, the College announced its partnership with UWill to provide 24-hour online counseling to students at no cost. Of course, such large-scale projects are a welcome development that this Editorial Board acknowledged positively impacts our campus. Even so, the culture around mental health and wellbeing leaves a lot to be desired. Given Dartmouth’s deeply ingrained work-hard, play-hard culture, wellness initiatives should be implemented into daily life on campus — most critically, in the classroom. 

Though overlooked at the time due to ongoing tragedies on campus, The Dartmouth reported on the addition of free subscriptions to Headspace, a mindfulness and meditation app, for all College faculty, staff and students in September. Since then, many new student wellness initiatives have taken hold on campus. For one, the Student Wellness Center reopened in a new location in Baker-Berry Library on Jan. 11. The new space is filled with various wellness and mindfulness tools as well as a tranquility room to help students “feel supported and feel well taken care of,” according to SWC director Caitlin Barthelmes. This move to a common, easily accessible location shows the value the College is placing on mental health: no longer hidden in the attic of Robinson Hall, student wellness is front and center. 

However, much like Headspace, not everyone chooses to go to the Student Wellness Center — it is a space that students must opt into. For real culture change to happen, wellbeing must be prioritized at all levels — including in the classroom. After all, students spend the majority of our time each day either in class or preparing for it. 

The German studies department provides a compelling example of what this classroom strategy might entail. This past fall, the department put a grant of $5,000 from the Center for the Advancement of Learning towards a successful pilot of an in-class wellness initiative. As German language program director Nicolay Ostrau told The Dartmouth, “barriers to mental wellbeing are coming from [both] social factors and personal life choices.” The wellness initiative expanded this term to include all introductory-level German courses; with any luck, this may inspire other departments and programs across campus to do the same. 

Change in the classroom comes at little or no cost to the programs and departments that implement them. The German studies department funded a new website containing articles on wellness, a series of recorded interviews of mental health experts and a teaching assistant to translate affirmations from English to German — all for a relatively modest investment. Other changes, such as incorporating a five-minute mindfulness activity before the start of class, also take very little to implement. Some professors have even gotten creative. Heidi Denzel, who teaches GERM 1: “Introductory German,” has her students recite positive self-talk in German: “I am strong; I am smart; I will find solutions.” So, if money is not the barrier to change, then what is?

The German studies department has shown that incorporating mindfulness does not have to be an overwhelming task. Rather, professors can easily maintain their academic freedom and course rigor while also showing their students that they care for their wellbeing. However, in the experience of this Editorial Board, some professors may disagree that this change is possible — or even necessary. We implore you to reconsider. 

Challenging, engaging coursework and free intellectual pursuit are worthy goals for any academic, but learning and mental health are not mutually exclusive — in fact, they are complementary. As Barthelmes argued: “Incorporating these practices in the classroom can create a supportive classroom environment and can enhance learning.” The data support this. A recent report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that mental health is positively correlated to academic achievement: Not only do mentally healthy students score higher on their tests, they are also more likely to graduate. It certainly seems possible to promote mental health in the classroom without sacrificing academic rigor. Being a successful Dartmouth student should not mean we have to disregard our mental and physical health completely. 

By incorporating mindfulness into their classes, professors can demonstrate that they care about their students’ wellbeing and show how students can be both academically successful and healthy. Going forward, we would encourage professors to think critically about the work they are assigning and consider exchanging one part of those lengthy reading assignments for a mindfulness assignment. It may seem pointless, but its impact will ripple. It is difficult to imagine a more cost-effective way to improve the culture around mental health and promote wellbeing on campus. Imagine the positive culture around mental health and wellness that we would have at Dartmouth if all introductory classes incorporated mindfulness. We call on programs and departments across the College to learn from the successful experiment led by Denzel and Ostrau in the German studies program by incorporating mental health initiatives into their curricula. 

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

Correction appended (March 5, 2:15 p.m.): A previous version of this column did not name Heidi Denzel as one of the leaders of the wellness initiative in the German studies program. The article has been updated.