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How University of Michigan takes a proactive approach to mental wellness

COVID was a catalyst for mental health issues and substance abuse among many close to higher-ed campuses. Here’s how one school is tackling the crisis head on.
college campus
Illustration by Midjourney

The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor has a wealth of online and in-person resources to promote mental wellness among students, faculty and staff.

But post-COVID, these resources have been overwhelmed.

“The student population is especially vulnerable now,” said Keith Soster, director of sustainability, student and community engagement at the university. “The pandemic has had a huge impact, plus it’s now easier to get drugs with the legalization of marijuana in many states.”

Alcohol has long been pretty accessible to college students, but students are not the only ones struggling. Inflation, labor issues and supply chain challenges are compounding the pressure on foodservice employees and anyone who works to serve others. That includes faculty and campus support staff.

The pandemic has pushed the university to move from a reactive approach to mental health and substance abuse challenges to a more proactive one, Soster notes.

A collaborative effort

The Alcohol and Other Drug Committee (AOD) at the university has been meeting regularly to review policies and procedures and make sure they are up to standards. The committee works with the student government to plan alcohol-free events as alternatives to late-night parties. All of its activities are free to students, plus they get freebies to take home.

An initiative by the student government to set up water stations during football games has been especially effective. “Keeping students hydrated during tailgate parties slows down the rate of alcohol absorption,” Soster said.

The residential dining teams have also been trained to serve food that will absorb alcohol during and after a weekend of partying. “We teach staff about the science of intoxication and how to recognize students who are visibly in trouble,” said Soster. “They are encouraged to notify residential hall staff to do a wellness check on students who may be having problems.”

Catered events can pose challenges to foodservice and student workers hired to help, as well as guests. “There are lots of policies around catering on campus,” said Soster. “Every drink must come with a mixer, and guests can only order one drink at a time. Plus, food must be present any time alcohol is served.”

Additionally, the bar must close one hour before the end of an event. And shots are off limits.

Dining supervisors and managers are also coached to recognize alcohol abuse issues in employees and give them an opportunity to seek help. They’re equipped with talking points and referral information, Soster said.

Next steps

Both the campus and the community of Ann Arbor offer substance abuse and mental health resources, and interactions are kept confidential.

Perhaps the most discreet of all is the “Stay in the Blue” app created by University Health Services. Students can download it on their phones and access a wealth of information about safe alcohol consumption, blood alcohol levels, avoiding hangovers and where to get wellness coaching. The app also provides info on Michigan’s collegiate recovery program for drug and alcohol abuse.

Another campus resource is the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), which are available to all undergrad and graduate students. This organization is staffed with professionals and geared to mental wellness as a whole, with alcohol and drug counseling as a key component.

And all those affiliated with the university can access services through the Ann Arbor Campus-Community Coalition (A2C3), which specifically addresses reducing harmful alcohol and drug use in the community.

Employees have their own wellness program, MHealthy, administered through University Human Resources. Acting president Mary Sue Coleman launched the program when she was heading up the university through 2014, but it has since expanded to include mental and emotional health services.

On a broader scale, the state of Michigan adopted a medical amnesty law in 2012 that allows a minor (under age 21) to seek medical help for an overdose or intoxication without fear of prosecution. “A student can’t get in trouble for referring a friend or getting medical attention,” said Soster.

For more on how COVID has impacted mental health and substance abuse in the foodservice industry, read “Killer in the kitchen,” a series from our sister publication, Restaurant Business.

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