Educating Wellness

St. Thomas works for the total well-being of students ? body, mind and spirit

Hundreds of St. Thomas students worked on being well last year in free programs offered on campus. They went to yoga, did aerobics, joined Weight Watchers, learned CPR and lifted weights under supervision. If they so chose, they could learn how to quit smoking. They could join the 28 percent of students who reported in a 1998 survey that they are drug and alcohol free, or the 51 percent who reported in 1999 that they drink less than once per week.

The good news is that St. Thomas undergraduates are pretty healthy in obvious ways. Fifty-nine percent work out two or three times a week, compared to the national average of 38 percent for college students.

Other students are busy working out on weekends, too, but it’s a covert régime of stuffing and lifting sixpacks of beer in laundry baskets and hockey bags — a favorite way for St. Thomas students to try to smuggle beer into residence halls. Alcohol is forbidden anywhere on campus to those under 21. The bulging bags are a sure tipoff to security personnel and residence hall supervisors, who confiscate any alcohol belonging to minors.

National studies agree that more than half of college students who drink report they do so to get drunk. According to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, 80 percent of high school seniors have used alcohol, and two-thirds buy their own. Experimentation with drugs and alcohol begins around the age of 12, and students in grades 5 to 12 say that alcohol advertising encourages them to drink. Junior, middle and senior high school students drink 35 percent of all wine coolers sold.

Controlling alcohol abuse is "a major part of organized wellness programs at universities," said Greg Roberts, vice president for student affairs. At St. Thomas, wellness deals with problems (alcohol abuse, eating disorders, smoking, gambling and emotional problems) by offering positive behaviors (overall health care, exercise, dieticians, counseling and education.

Wellness is a necessity

"Wellness is not just an option. It is a necessity," said Roberts, commenting on those who think the function of a college should be limited to the academic life. "At St. Thomas we are concerned about the education of the whole person — the body, mind and spirit — and just as we strengthen resources so that the mind is challenged and the spirit is encouraged, we challenge and support the healthy body. At this university, we have added opportunities to embrace the whole person.

"Ironically, it was smoking that catapulted wellness into areas where people are paying a great deal of attention," Roberts explained. Smoking is associated with more deaths than all other drugs combined. "The dangers of secondhand smoke are now well-documented and people are listening to wellness concerns with some degree of attention. Now corporations put wellness into benefits packages. Our society is more aware of America’s sedentary lifestyle, the instant era where everything you want is right there — the microwave for food, the TV and computer for entertainment and communication."

Being positive about wellness is the best approach, said Dana Farley, coordinator of the Wellness Center and the Drug and Alcohol Education program at St. Thomas.

Education is the strongest tool universities can use. St. Thomas blankets the campus with appeals against smoking (campus buildings are smoke-free, except for a few designated areas), and drug and alcohol abuse.

Taking a holistic approach

"We put the emphasis on students and take a holistic approach to wellness," said Farley, who has a master’s in clinical psychology from Illinois State University and spent five years at the University of Illinois working in alcohol and drug education. "A holistic message is a positive one, so we stress positive action in all areas for a healthy campus environment."

The opportunities to work on fitness are everywhere on campus. There are large, supervised workout rooms in both gymnasiums and at Koch Commons, which serves three residence halls.

Entertainment on campus is well publicized. For example, Scooter’s, the alcohol-free pub, schedules bands, magicians and other entertainment on weekends in an effort to keep students on campus.

Suggestions for exercise written with students in mind are effective, Farley said, pointing out a favorite booklet, "Getting Fit with No Time and No Money." Do push-ups using your desk, it advises. Take a brisk, three-minute walk before bed. Deadlines, exams and papers can impair your ability to concentrate and to relax, so stand and stretch every 20 minutes.

To get healthy, not "fad," advice about what to eat, students can consult a dietician who keeps regular hours in the Wellness Center. They also may go online to get the answers they need about nutrition and specialized diet needs.

The Wellness Center also gathers statistics about students’ overall health. In a survey done in 1998 (with a 61 percent return rate), 41 percent of students reported missing a class due to drinking or drug abuse and more than 25 percent reported driving under the influence.

Alcohol abuse is drug abuse

"Alcohol is drug abuse, yet most people do not equate drinking with marijuana or other chemicals," Roberts said. "There is some discussion that marijuana use is on the rise again but it can’t compete with alcohol. All the signals in a student’s world say alcohol is the way to have fun. Alcohol is used to advertise everything. It’s easy to get. Some students have parents or siblings who abuse alcohol. It’s very widespread.

"Young people have made alcohol a socialization game so they can justify questionable behavior," Roberts said. "When they start a new life in college, they perpetuate alcohol abuse in the name of socializing. The peer pressure to be accepted is so strong and the isolation of this computer generation also plays a large part."

"More than 2,000 students, including 89 percent of the freshman class, live in residence halls. Of those who drink illegally, the majority have usage patterns when they come to St. Thomas," said Alan Sickbert, dean of student life. "We enforce the law. It is illegal for any students under 21 to possess alcohol. Students 21 and over can have alcohol in their rooms but cannot give it to minors. The penalties fit the crime.

"Sanctions range from a discussion and a warning for a first offense — for one beer, for example — to suspension from the residence halls for repeated offenses. If appropriate, we assign violators to complete an Alcohol 100 class. Most students make responsible decisions and we go to great efforts to educate those who don’t."

"Federal privacy laws were changed last year and now we can notify parents if a student under 21 is placed on probation for alcohol or drug abuse," said Karen Lange, associate dean of student life. "Alcohol abuse is a drinking behavior students bring with them. It is very difficult to disrupt, but we work hard to do so. We use sanctioning and education. Abuse can put classmates at risk and affect the drinker’s ability to succeed in school."

Helping resolve difficulties

St. Thomas also does the best it can to eliminate the negatives. For one thing, the university meets with and tries to reason with nearby bar owners — the ones who sell students a mug and an all-you-can drink promise for $5, and the ones who sell shots for a quarter as part of a drinking game. "Obviously, bar owners are not too concerned with the effects of alcohol on our students," Roberts said dryly. "What they really are working on is making alcohol a habit."

Students who think they or a friend may have a drinking problem can go to Personal Counseling for alcohol assessment. They may also go to group counseling to understand and resolve any difficulties they have with life. They can get referrals to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. A resource guide for students reminds them that alcohol — in addition to increasing aggressive acts — is a depressant that can increase feelings of depression or suicide.

St. Thomas also has created Recovery House, a collaborative program with Hazelden and the Progress Valley foundations. The facility houses up to four students to encourage them to remain drug and alcohol free; it alternates between men and women each year. Chemical-free lifestyle floors can be chosen in residence halls.

"Often parents whose child is in recovery are interested in a house where the student will not be tempted. There is such a need for extra structure and support for young people like these and we want to encourage them," said Roberts.

Healthy eating is another concern

Eating disorders are another broad concern and also usually a behavior that begins long before college. However, the number of college students who practice healthy eating is debatable. Studies indicate that bulimia (eating and purging because of an intense fear of gaining weight) may be as high as 15 percent in college-age women.

Personal Counseling offers screenings for eating disorders and information on how to stop letting food, weight and calories control your life.

"Our overriding message to students is that people come in a broad range of shapes and sizes and that the most important thing is how you feel inside," said Dr. Colette Kuhn, a psychologist in Personal Counseling. "It is a shame when the excitement of college is overshadowed by calorie counting, compulsive exercise and worry about clothing size."

Counselors emphasize that even those who do not have a diagnosed eating disorder can benefit from this program. Food concerns, body dissatisfaction and low self-esteem can keep a student from achieving at school or sports and hinder social activities.

One widespread perception at other colleges is that women students at St. Thomas are all blond, well dressed, very thin — and many are prone to eating disorders.

Concern with body image

That is simply not true, according to the university’s Body Image Task Force, formed two years ago to explore these concerns. Research data indicate the prevalence of eating disorders among St. Thomas students (about 8 percent) seems similar to other colleges and universities (from 4 to 20 percent).

However, there does appear to be an overconcern with appearance and body image among students that may result in unhealthy use of eating and exercise, which is distinct from diagnosable eating disorders. The task force stressed discussing these issues in campus forums and educating faculty and staff in recognizing students at risk.

Students with eating disorders can receive counseling and group therapy and are provided referrals if their medical conditions warrant. If necessary, medical personnel from the university’s Health Services monitor physical complications, seeing students weekly. Not everything works all the time. Often students do not want their parents to know about eating disorders, for example, and resist referrals.

Orientation for all new students is a vehicle for making students aware of what body image means with the showing of the video, "Body Wise: A Blurred Image," created by Dr. Tim Scully’s Advanced Video Production class. The video also is shown in residence halls and physical education classes.

Discussions after the video present these facts: the average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches, weighs 140 pounds, and wears a size 14; the "ideal" American women portrayed by models, pageants and actresses is 5 feet 7 inches, weighs 100 pounds and is a size 8.

The male image is not as disparate: The average American male is 5 feet 10 inches and weighs 170 pounds; the "ideal" male is 5 feet 11 inches and weighs 172.

Perhaps that explains why 50 percent of 9-year-old girls and 80 percent of 10-year-old girls have dieted.

The media lies

The media lies to you, says the video, in emphasizing that we all should be thin, look the same, never age and "be obsessed with perfection." Students are asked to discuss positive alternatives: Eat a balanced diet, play, celebrate your strength, wear comfortable clothing, don’t judge others by shape or attire, widen your comfort zone and try new things, don’t weigh your self-esteem and — most important — be patient with yourself, like a friend.

"There definitely are some issues here," Scully said. "Actually, I think many students have disordered eating, instead of an eating disorder. They look at calorie counts rather than nutritional value."

The current offerings for students prone to eating disorders are perhaps well above what a university of this size typically offers, the task force concluded, but improvements can be made continually.

Healthy relationships

Taking a look at entire person carries wellness far beyond lifting weights and jogging. "This is true especially in healthy relationships," Farley said, explaining that the Wellness Center collaborates with other departments to widen the scope of its programming.

"Major problems for college-age people are drinking and driving, sexual assault and other violence, both often the result of alcohol abuse. We have stressed more and more in the last few years programs that focus on reducing harm in personal relationships, campaigning for students to use designated drivers and seat belts, things like this. Our message is clear: don’t do this. Grow in a positive direction and move into a healthier environment."

The messages are everywhere. When Mary Beth Bonacci, a national author and speaker on relationships and chastity, spoke on campus in February, her lecture was sponsored by the Center for Catholic Studies. But her well-attended talk was about wellness, about discerning the difference between what she called "pizza love" (using others to fill needs) and "real love" (wanting what is best for the other person). Bonacci, who has written We’re on a Mission from God, used both science and religion to explain sex as a sign of God’s power. "Chastity means understanding the difference between affection and passion," she said.

Hope is another message. Dr. Carolyn Cornelison, an alcoholic at age 21 who later earned her Ph.D., spoke at St. Thomas in April. She discussed her abuse of alcohol in college and how she learned to change. Cornelison, known for her humor and dynamism, spoke on "Courage to Care."

All part of the human race

Personal Counseling’s mission statement is that we are all in this together: Often people enter counseling believing their problems are unique. Groups provide the opportunity for participants to see that they are part of the human race. A group experience has the potential of helping people feel less "different" from others.

Emotional issues also affect an individual’s wellness. Coun-seling offers many group sessions — like Grief-Loss Support and Single Parent’s Support — to help students feel more connected to the community, explore issues of concern, gain insight, learn new skills and help others. Its Web site offers immediate referral for those who seek out self-help sites.

Other addictions are of concern, too, Farley said. "The drug most abused here is tobacco. We are about 10 to 15 percent higher than other colleges and see that more women are smoking. For the majority of history, men smoked more, but about five years ago the number of young women in high school who smoked surpassed the men; they use it as weight control."

Most make healthy decisions

"The vast majority of our students make healthy decisions most of the time," Farley said. "It’s like going to a party with 100 people and you see only two behaving badly. However, those two can present problems for many others in their environment."

The St. Thomas environment includes a healthy array of varsity sports. It also organizes 14 intramural sports in which 500 students participate each year. "The main idea of intramurals is to get people active and social so they can meet others with similar interests," said Dave Lepp, facilities director. "Students also can continue a sport they like. We offered more coed teams last year in activities like volleyball, soccer, sand volleyball and Ultimate Frisbee. Wellness is getting out and doing something healthy and socializing at the same time."

And it is free at St. Thomas. This includes a noncredit class all students are required to take but do not pay for — Physical Education 100.

PE is fitness, not competition

Emphasis is put on wellness instead of performance. "We believe in the total well being of the student. The first half of the semester is strictly wellness," said Dr. J.D. Parsley, chair of the Health and Human Performance Depart-ment. "We offer lectures, physical and mental testing, and education about chemical abuse in terms of what drugs and alcohol do to the body. During the second half, we introduce students to individual fitness techniques like aerobics, self-defense, circuit training, lifting and running. We are teaching them how to design a fitness program for themselves and the students are very receptive."

One of the most popular and fastest-growing clubs on campus is the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which emphasizes spiritual and social fellowship. Anyone who plays, watches and enjoys sports can join. It emphasizes wellness and its premise is that the qualities for success in athletics — discipline, commitment and teamwork — also apply to spiritual life.

Health is spiritual

"Every program we offer is about wellness because a spiritual life promotes it," said the Rev. Jeff Huard, director of Campus Ministry. He lists religious services, retreats, opportunities to volunteer, weekly prayer meetings and Bible study groups. Common Ground, a house on Summit Avenue, welcomes students for prayer (they pray the Julibee rosary every Thursday night), discussion, food, entertainment and peaceful surroundings on stressful days. Huard estimates Campus Ministry connects with perhaps 2,000 students a year. It offers counseling and referrals and something more.

"Wellness is built on a spirituality at our core," Huard said.

"Love makes us healthy and love in action is very practical. We forget ourselves when we volunteer to serve others, and there is a health in that. Students come in for counseling and they are stressed or very disappointed in some aspect of their lives. I think much un-wellness comes from living in a self-absorbed society which wants us to be consumed by our own desires.

"I often tell students one way to regain their equilibrium is to look beyond yourself. Go visit someone who needs love, someone in a home for the aged or those with cancer.

"You will find healing in yourself."