Mental health crisis prompts one local college to invest $10 million in student wellness programs

WORCESTER, Mass — Many young people are facing a crisis in mental health.

Nowhere was that pain more evident than on the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute over the last year or so.

Seven students died suddenly.

Many of them took their own lives.

“I’ve been here for 30 years and last year is the year that stands out as the most difficult on this campus, just in terms of the challenges with so many student deaths and many of them suicide,” said Charlie Morse, WPI’s Dean for Student Wellness.

Each tragedy sent another wave of pain washing over the WPI campus.

Sara Sylvestre, a sophomore, said “Personally, I lost my uncle for the same reason, so I had a hard time on campus when everyone was talking about it last year. The fact that they’re actually taking steps is definitely needed. And I’m glad it’s finally happening.”

WPI is spending $10 million to address the mental health needs of their students.

The centerpiece is the new Center for Well-Being.

It’s equipped with meditation rooms that have comfortable chairs and compression boots to help students relax.

Morse said it was important to locate the center in a highly visible area.

“It needs to be in a high-traffic area, so we’re right here on the quad, adjacent to the main dining service.”

With muted colors and soft lighting, the center is intentionally tranquil.

“It’s a refuge here. The water wall is in the background. It’s designed to be calming, just a place to disconnect,” explained Morse.

Andrew Strauss, a senior, came by to attend a class many people would not associate with an engineering school.

“It’s a meditation seminar where we learn about the theory and practice of meditation. We learn a lot about Buddhism and pragmatic spiritualism.”

Strauss says he now meditates on his own and thinks this approach could help some students.

“I have a lot of friends that definitely struggle mentally. I think it’s a net positive for sure.”

Jermah Kamara, the center’s associate director, has a simple message for students.

“The moment anything happens, and you feel like something is out of touch with you, get help, because then that will help you as a person, as a student, and certainly will help the faculty member to be able to support you.”

Changing attitudes can take time. WPI remains a highly competitive school, and with that, comes academic and peer pressure.

“I don’t think it’s about decreasing the rigor of the environment. I do think it’s about increasing all the resources within the environment to be more supportive, more compassionate, but at the same time maintaining standards,” added Morse.

Morse believes many of the mental health problems young people are experiencing have been brewing for years. The surge in demand for services that COVID brought exposed weaknesses in the support systems that were available.

These new programs are also being made available to faculty.

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