Updated Feb. 13 at 11:07 a.m.
Student Fernanda Calix tried to unwind at Worcester Polytechnic Institute's new Center for Well-Being on a recent morning, but relaxation is not exactly part of her aerospace engineering major.
“It’s definitely a very stressful environment,” Calix said, just a couple weeks into the new term. “Whenever I ask my friends, ‘How’s your term going?’ They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s already hectic. It’s already very busy and crazy.’”
WPI recently opened the $10 million wellness center in an effort to change the social culture on a campus long-dominated by fraternities and foosball. Spanning nearly 3,000 square feet, the center offers free spa-like amenities, from pastel-walled meditation rooms to compression boots to circulate blood flow in the legs, just steps from more than a dozen mental health counselors employed by the university. The investment, on the heels of several student deaths by suicide in 2021, gives students a state-of-the-art place to unwind.
Experts said such interventions on college campuses are increasingly common and long overdue.
“Finally, it's about time we're investing in mental health,” said Susan Hoover, co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health and a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
For many colleges and universities, student wellness became a priority even before the pandemic. The University of Colorado spent $53 million in 2012 on a wellness center that offers “mental and spiritual rejuvenation,” including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, eliminated its Division III athletic program and opened a massive athletic and wellness center eight years ago, calling it a “wellness revolution.”
And while Hoover applauded such an investment, she said shiny new buildings alone are not the sole solution to improving campus culture. And not every campus can afford a wellness center or puts a priority on building them.
“The reality is that [colleges] have to choose between the resources [they’re] putting in place,” she said. “Some may not be able to spread their resources that widely, and frankly, that’s a shame.”
While most centers emphasize fitness and athletics, WPI’s is unique. It’s separate from the campus’s athletic facilities and more like a spa with its trickling waterfalls, potted plants and modern furniture. Meant to foster relaxation and social connection, students are even invited to kick back, slip on a pair of compression boots (to boost blood flow in their legs) and download a meditation app.
“I’d call this space a refuge, a physical refuge,” said Charlie Morse, WPI’s dean of student wellness.
Morse said the number of WPI students who receive some form of mental health services on WPI’s campus has tripled in the past decade, with one in four students seeking some type of intervention. Following the deaths of seven students during a seven-month stretch in 2021, the university hired two new professional counselors and a case manager.
That brings its total counseling staff to 14. But, even so, Morse said officials realized they couldn’t hire their way out of the student mental health problem.
“The model of individual psychological support will crumble” under the weight of the need, he said.
Instead, staff are using new conference rooms in the wellness center to ramp up peer-to-peer counselor training, led by staff. It’s a new, more formal program that builds on the college’s longstanding peer support training, which trains about 100 students each year.
Experts say peer-to-peer counseling — in a fancy setting or not — can offer students needed relief. Research shows nearly seven in 10 young people tell a friend they are feeling suicidal before telling anyone else.
Markie Pasternak, senior manager for higher education with the youth mental health–focused nonprofit Active Minds, said it also builds a sense of community and helps remove some of the stigma around discussing mental health in a competitive academic environment.
“We have to equip our students on how to respond to somebody saying that they’re struggling,” she said. “It’s not always a crisis situation yet, and there are steps you can take to prevent a crisis situation.”
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a series of suicides nearly a decade ago prompted similar efforts.
MIT officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but alumnus Nikhil Buduma co-founded a hotline that offered students anonymous peer-to-peer counseling by text. Buduma said MIT made professional counselors available to students, while also giving them an anonymous channel to seek support privately — though it didn’t open a new wellness center.
Buduma said building organic human connection is paramount as a campus grieves, and cast some doubt on what a new center can do.
“While it’s a well-intended investment,” he said of WPI’s new wellness center, “I’m not quite sure that’s actually getting to the root of the [student mental health] problem.”
Nearly 2,000 WPI students and alumni signed a petition last year demanding that administrators and the Board of Trustees make more space for socializing on campus. The petition criticized the school for caring more about “a large endowment, showpiece buildings, and a culture of overwork” while eliminating a bowling alley and bar on campus.
Fifth-year student Jack Baker said he appreciated the university’s efforts with the wellness center, but said the building is often empty.
“The same amount of students are struggling,” he said, adding that he’d like to see some professors ease up on the workload, which puts students under too much pressure.
Following last year’s suicides, Morse, WPI’s dean of student wellness, said he talked to several different groups of students who consistently told him what they needed was a space where they can “just go be together and let go.”
“Not an academic space, necessarily, but a place to gather and connect,” he said.
Calix, the aerospace student, who came to WPI from Honduras, said she liked the new wellness center but when she visited it on a recent morning, it wasn’t to meditate, socialize or try the compression boots. She was there to study.
“It’s just very relaxing to be here, even doing work,” she said.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call theNational Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or use theCrisis Text Line by texting “Home” to 741741. More resources are available atSpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Morse’s last name.