It’s nearly impossible to log onto Twitter or scan the news without seeing the words mental health, anxiety, wellness, meditation or depression—and it’s often coming from the mouths (or fingertips) of smart, curious and concerned Gen Zers. 

More than ever, you want college to be about personal growth as much as it is academic growth. We hear you loud and clear, and that’s why Siena has added new programs and resources to address these issues—and will continue to innovate ways we can help our students. 

To get to know our wellness staff, our resources and our plans for the future, check out our two-part Q&A series. First up: Meet Kate Kaufman Burns, MSW, LCSW-R, Siena’s Director of Health Promotion. 

Tell us about the Office of Health Promotion at Siena—when and why it was established. 

The Office of Health Promotion was established in January 2018 to address the issues of mental health, physical health and relationship health. Alcohol and other drug prevention, education and outreach is another primary focus of Health Promotion offices: so many times substance use and abuse walks with mental health challenges. 

I have found in my time here at Siena that students are looking to find something, fill something, forget something, or feel something. Although many students have developed healthy ways to do this, many others are in crisis and turning to maladaptive coping behaviors and making unhealthy lifestyle choices. The Office of Health Promotion at Siena College looks to promote whole-person wellness: mind, body, soul.  

What are some of the latest initiatives your office has brought forward? 

After working closely with the Counseling Center, Dean of Students and Health Services to better understand the needs of our students, we created psychoeducational skills-building groups ("Wellness Sessions"). In these, students teach other students how to cope more effectively with stress, anxiety and relationship conflict. 

We have also built a team of Certified Peer Health Educators who provide education, outreach and mentoring to fellow students primarily around issues of alcohol and other drug use and mental health and wellness. These students have also rallied around grieving students in our community and have offered mentoring through shared experiences and activities to help grieve the loss of a loved one.  (For example, students will be planting perennials for deceased parents on 4/29). 

In addition, I've added "Connect with Kate," a "Let's Talk" series of appointments where students can drop in, meet with a licensed clinician and establish a human connection. I'm often able to catch the "non-urgent" cases (the 30% of cases that do not involve suicidal ideation but primarily relationship conflict, grief and loss, academic failure, homesickness).

Alcohol and drug use is often a concern for families when it comes to sending their children to college. How does your office address those issues?

We’re very committed to understanding and shifting behavior in reference to alcohol and other drug (AOD) use. I meet with students regularly who have been sanctioned for AOD use/abuse, implement assessments and conduct risk reduction dialogues to try to increase awareness and insight into behavioral patterns. I offer education and assessment individually and in groups where indicated.

What about athletes in particular? Anything specific for them? 

Yes! I have worked with athletics this year and provided nearly 300 DI athletes with information about stress management skills and completed a needs assessment to continue to provide support to these students where research suggests they experience the same mental health issues as their non-athlete student partners but at a 2% higher rate.

Any and all of the resiliency-based skills that we are developing in Health Promotion is intended to be shared with faculty and administrators interested in providing this kind of targeted support in their own areas. The plan is to collaborate with campus partners in the Fall of 2019.

Is there anything you feel you do exceptionally well to make sure students aren't completely overwhelmed or dealing with anxiety on their own?

Health Promotion specializes in the "art of presence.” We try to be a visible force promoting healthy lifestyle choices and harm reduction strategies. 

For example, we set up a tent at the Sienafest Carnival. We provide education and support during new student orientation. We create flyers in the SSU stalls that provide motivational and inspirational messages that let them know they are not alone in what hurts or what they struggle with. We remind them through our Wellness sessions, bi-weekly "Be Well" newsletter, events, programs, and individual and group encounters that "You have survived 100% of your worst days. You're doing great.  Keep going."  And after every message is the Health Promotion button: "Be Well."  

Why is it so important for college to not JUST be about academics and getting a job—but also about nurturing your mind, learning about mental health, and taking care of yourself?

With mental health crises rising and with the imploding impact of social media on our young adults, we are more desperate than ever to give our students every opportunity to overcome the challenges they face. The reality is, without the resiliency skills building we are doing in offices like Health Promotion, students may not be able to stay in the classroom and successfully complete their degrees. 

By nurturing the whole person and focusing on building skills for mental health and well-being, we throw a net under our students so they can be well—not just at Siena—but in life. I’d also say it’s our collaboration at Siena and willingness to work together that sets us apart. From self-awareness to self-compassion, self-care and every skill set in between, Siena students can be assured that they will have every opportunity to thrive.

What would you want prospective students to know? And their parents? If they choose Siena.

I would want students to know that if they choose Siena, they will matter to us.  One student, one story at a time. We tailor the experience to our students because we have the ability to know them by name: to know what excites them, scares them, what gives them joy. We have a network of support built into the faculty, staff and administration who will rally around them during hard times and celebrate with them during good times. 

My own daughter will be a Saint in the Class of 2023, and I know that she will be taken care of, nurtured and guided in a way that is not limited to the classroom. I would say to other parents: trust us with your children. Let them go just enough to allow them to learn from their own successes and failures. We will be with them every step of the way. Their whole-person wellness matters to us. 

If you’re reading this and haven’t yet been to campus, plan a visit now—you’ll see firsthand how much we care about everyone here. (Thank you so much, Kate!)