Last spring, Jason Arkin, a junior residing on the same floor as now-sophomore Isabel Schwartz, took his own life. He was the third Northwestern student in less than a year to do so.
Schwartz said the incident gave mental health a new sense of urgency at NU and inspired her to create the “wellness chair” program. The Medill sophomore said the chairs will lead programming in various student groups around mental, physical, emotional wellness and discuss why students’ attitudes about mental health are how they are. She said different groups’ chairs will do different things, including meditation after meetings, relaxation breathing and checking in on members stress levels.
The goal is to place wellness chairs in 50 different student organizations next fall, Schwartz said, and training will be scheduled for the end of Spring Quarter. Wellness chairs will begin a full-year term beginning next fall.
“For me, I wasn’t seeing enough institutional change or top-down solutions that would impact students’ mental health and improve the situation on campus,” the Medill sophomore said. “Northwestern is a very high-pressure, intense environment and students are both put under a lot of academic pressure and put a lot of pressure on themselves to do it all.”
In the fall, her main goal was to create a grassroots mental health project for a class assignment in which students design initiatives based on a problem they identify in the community, she said. The project, which began as a group assignment, became an independent initiative by Schwartz during the Winter Quarter, she said.
Schwartz said she worked with CAPS executive director John Dunkle to plan out the logistics and training details of the program, as well as with members of NU Listens and Active Minds for feedback and improvements.
The program’s oversight committee, which comprises 12 students, is currently preparing to reach out to a variety of student groups to have conversations about their involvement in the program, Schwartz said.
NU Listens assistant director Brooke Feinstein, a member of the oversight committee, said wellness chairs will provide students an alternative resource with the organizations they’re involved in.
“There are a lot of great resources at (NU) like CAPS, but I think that one of the problems that some resources have here is that they’re often very overwhelmed or that students aren’t even aware that they’re there,” the Weinberg junior said. “Having members of different organizations trained will help someone who doesn’t want to reach out to someone who is considered more professional but just needs someone to be there and listen.”
A large aim behind the idea of a wellness chair is to not have a “one-size fits all” approach to mental health, Schwartz said. How each wellness chair operates will be up to that student group, but each chair will be trained by CAPS in suicide-prevention, active listening and awareness programming.
In addition to working with CAPS to create the chairs, Schwartz also brought the proposal to the Associated Student Government Student Life committee, where she is also a committee member.
“Isabel has been working as a committee member on Student Life on a lot of mental health initiatives and then she brought this idea to me, so I’ve been helping her with questions and feedback,” said Wendy Roldan, ASG’s vice president for student life.
Although the wellness chair program is independent of any specific student group, ASG has been supporting Schwartz by reaching out to students and recruiting wellness chairs, Roldan, a McCormick junior, said.
“It’s really about bringing the conversation about mental health and wellness into the functioning of the student group,” Schwartz said. “Student groups impact students’ mental health significantly and there needs to be a greater level of awareness on their part of how their functioning impacts students’ wellness.”
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