Wellness Center focuses on both body & mind

August 27, 2015

To treat student wellness issues more holistically, Saint Michael’s College health staff and personal counselors now are working side-by-side in the former longtime campus home of the Media Studies, Journalism and Digital Arts Department.

The name of the single-story, house-sized red-brick building next to the tennis courts is still Bergeron, and the outside façade and grounds don’t look much different from last year. But inside is a different story.

The “MJD” Department packed up and moved its faculty offices and media labs to the basement of Jeanmarie Hall soon after graduation in May, clearing the way for a flurry of renovations that allowed staff from the formerly separate Student Health Services and Personal Counseling Offices to take shared occupancy of  the new “Bergeron Wellness Center” on August 12.

Renovators from KJ Construction began gutting Bergeron days after Commencement, prior to constructing newly configured walls and spaces and painting the new walls in bright and cheerful yellows and green. They also built in shelves, desks and counter spaces and created an attractive common reception area inside the left front door. With help from a local firm composed of veterans who do moving, they brought in new furniture and other amenities too.

Medical examination rooms and a lab are to the left beyond the waiting room, while a new nurses’ room, staff break room/kitchen, counselor offices and a big programming room called the “Wellness Room” are to the right. Outside access to the existing Bergeron bathrooms, added to accommodate patrons of sporting events or athletes, also was part of the renovation project, which included other new bathrooms off examination rooms and elsewhere too.

Prior to the move, Student Health Services operated for years in the basement of Alumni Hall, while the Personal Counseling Center was in Klein alongside the Teaching Gardens and McCarthy Arts Centers.

The closer collaboration and physical proximity of Health Services and Counseling is a logical move reflecting a wider general national trend in healthcare philosophy, both at colleges and more generally, according to Mary Masson, RN, director of Student Health Services, and Kathy Butts, who takes over this year as director of the Counseling Center from the office’s retiring veteran leader, Linda Hollingdale.

Guided by a consultant, staffs from both offices brainstormed for much of the past year to arrive at a vision statement for their new cooperative enterprise at the Wellness Center: “Confidential care of the bodies, minds and spirits of our diverse student community in support of their lifelong well-being.”

Trustees last fall gave a green light to purposefully placing both offices under one roof – a plan that has been discussed and widely advocated on campus for more than a decade. Once studies determined Bergeron was the best existing campus space for it, planning began late last fall.

It’s just one piece of a general campus office-moving flurry over the summer, as several other offices changed spaces too — including the Academic Enrichment Commons staff moving from Klein to space on the second floor of Durick Library that formerly housed Modern Language Department offices. The glassy and bright Durick space has been renovated and newly configured too with a large tutoring room a centerpiece. Modern Languages faculty moved from the library to Klein. To make space for them, Human Resources staff also moved from Klein this summer to St. Joseph’s Hall — a large old house on Lime Kiln Road that was renovated after sitting dormant for a few years.

New look, new feel, new activities

Masson said wellness activities planned for fall in the Wellness Center’s new programming room include a four-week tobacco cessation course for students, an Intro to Mindfulness six-week program, an “Introduction to Yoga,” and continued programming through counseling that existed before the move. The room features comfy blue overstuffed chairs, bright yellow walls and yoga mats. “We’re just excited to be above ground and see greenery – it’s huge,” said Masson, whose office is next-door to the programming room. “It’s a great use of space. I think the architect did a great job.”

Art is coming soon for the Center’s waiting-room walls from the Global Eyes calendar project. “We’d like to make it inviting for all different backgrounds and cultures with something familiar for them,” Masson said. A bowl in the new lobby contains foamy “stress balls” that anxious clients are welcome to squeeze while they wait (or just take with them), Butts said.

A typical day in the new building will have three nurse practitioners seeing patients, four personal counselors on duty in their offices – Butts, Ryan Stanton and new hires Nick Hunter and Sarah Klionsky — plus Kari Bierbaum (formerly of Admissions) at the reception desk.

Masson said her office, while appointment-based, never has had to turn anyone away and doesn’t expect to now. “We average between 5,000 and 6,000 student visits a year, so we keep it moving,” she said. “On a really busy day we might see 35 to 45 students – flu season for instance. And September is one of our busiest months, so we hit the ground running, and will be offering flu shots in the fall.”

Butts says some students visit both student health and counseling, “sometimes for the same thing and sometimes for different things — but we really believe that the mind and body and spirit are all connected.” She gave an example: “Maybe they enter through health services and say, ‘I have a stomach ache and don’t know what’s going on,’ and it turns out they’re actually quite anxious.”

In such cases, the Wellness Center is about “making it easier for students to make that connection to mental health services when they need them — or from our services to physical health services,” Butts said. Added Masson: “A big part is educating students on self-care.”

Butts spoke of a growing recognition of mental health needs on campuses nationally including at Saint Michael’s that has made bringing services together a growing trend. “But you see a lot of different recipes trying to do the same thing and meet the same goals,” she said.

Masson spoke of “the medical home model” that is becoming popular in many towns: “You have, in one place, your physician, nutritionist, counselor/therapist, physical therapy – all the services you need, so you don’t’ have to travel to five different areas of town,” she explained, adding that the new campus center is a small image of that concept.

A key issue for both offices was assuring protection of student confidentiality. Each office will continue to maintain separate confidential charts and records for student clients and will not combine them, or share them without permission. “We speak to each other on an as-needed basis about a student, but we let students know ahead of time to see if it’s OK,” Butts said. “There’s a collaborative conversation – it’s important to us that they feel good about it too.”

She added that the Edmundites are very supportive of her office’s counseling initiatives, which essentially trace their origins back to the late Edmundite Fr. Maurice Ouellet, founder of the Student Resource Center in the 1970s. “There’s a real openness on our end for fresh ideas, such as mindfulness groups proposed by one of the campus ministers, and I’m hoping to see more of that kind of cooperation going forward,” she said.

Early this week, staff and faculty were dropping in to tour the facility, offering rave reviews. Student Health is already open for business, and counseling officially launched hours with the new semester’s start, though a few students called ahead or stopped by informally already. On the health services side, Masson said, “We saw about 200 athletes for pre-season health reviews already.”

“What we hope is that all students will feel comfortable accessing us and begin to really take charge of their own health and well-being, physical or mental health, and feel this is their space to use,” Masson said – “but also we hope they will graduate in four years knowing how to care for themselves and be their own health advocates.”

See the updated website for hours and more information: https://www.smcvt.edu/on-campus/wellness-and-safety/student-health-services.aspx

Follow us on social.