Prioritizing students’ physical and mental health needs

December 13th, 2023

Wellness week featured events such as a cycling class, yoga, cooking class and crochet lessons

Attending school can be a challenging balancing act for dental and dental hygiene students. There is rigorous coursework, a major time and financial commitment, plus personal obligations off campus. For some students, mental and physical needs can go unmet. Recognizing a gap in personal well-being among the student body, school leadership created the Student Mental Health and Wellness Committee.

The committee is co-chaired by Dr. Janna Burnett, clinical associate professor in comprehensive dentistry, and Dr. Alicia Spence, clinical assistant professor in comprehensive dentistry. They created the committee shortly after in-person classes returned following the COVID-19 pandemic, Burnett said, because they saw students struggling with their mental health and felt they could do something to help.

“Dental school shouldn’t be something the students are just surviving,” Burnett said.

The committee started small, Spence said, with Wellness Wednesdays encouraging students to come together for a variety of activities – socializing, exercise, exploring new hobbies and lectures from experts on how to support one another and take better care of one’s mental health. Over time, their efforts have grown, and just before the Thanksgiving break, the committee organized its first Wellness Week.

“With the Wellness Wednesdays, we’d feed the students and bring in a guest speaker, and we’d try to teach them about stress management or time management, or something along those lines,” Spence said. “In November, we tried something different. We put together different events for smaller groups, with different interests. We’re just trying to give them some options for stress relief and life skills.”

The Wellness Week events included a cycling class, a yoga class, a cooking class and a crochet class, with most of the events being led by school staff and faculty. Emily Rutherford, a third-year dental student, participated in the yoga and crochet classes. Both classes were great forms of stress relief, she said, and a good way to take a break from studying.

The Student Mental Health and Wellness Committee was founded to help students find new passions and relieve stress, to better their mental wellbeing

“The yoga class helped me to relax and feel grounded after sitting in lecture for four hours and before going to clinic for the afternoon,” she said. “I really enjoyed the crochet class, too! I ended up making coasters for my coffee table. It was a great brain break while studying.”

Parmida Shamsaifar, fourth-year dental student, said she regularly attends the Wellness Wednesday events. It is a “treasure and I will miss it dearly when I graduate,” she said.

Burnett said they were encouraging students to try something new.

“I think mental health and wellness can feel heavy sometimes, so we want to take that seriously,” she said. “We also want to make these events fun and something the students look forward to. We want to restore a sense of community here because a strong sense of community will be beneficial to everyone who spends time in this building.”

While focusing on stress relief and mental health, the committee hasn’t forgotten about students’ physical needs. With the collaboration of the Office of Student Affairs and the student organization LIGHT, the committee opened a new pocket pantry this month. The pantry is open daily to all students, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., on the first floor of the Administration and Education Building. Any student in need of food or personal hygiene products can take what they need from the pantry. There is also a clipboard where requests for items can be made.

“We noticed a lot of students struggling in different ways,” Spence said. “We know students who have needs outside of academia, just struggling in terms of providing for themselves or their families. We wanted to provide some support there so they can focus on their studies and not about where their next meal will come from.”

Along with Wellness Wednesdays, the committee also helps manage the school’s pocket pantry to help meet students’ physical as well as their mental needs.

Spence and Burnett said they’ve seen a lot of support from the school. The dean especially, Burnett said, has been incredibly generous. Donations of food and toiletries can be dropped off at the pantry.

“Demonstrating this generosity, extending that to students in need, is going to help our students become generous health care providers later on,” Burnett said. “They may have patients in need of generosity one day.”

Following Wellness Week, the committee organized a holiday market on Dec. 6 to support the pantry. Everyone was invited to visit with vendors and do some holiday shopping, with an entrance fee of a nonperishable food donation to the pantry.

“We want to help build a community here,” Burnett said. “We want to make it even more close-knit than it is.”

— Caleb Vierkant