A Q&A with WellBeing

Abigail Wyche, Assistant Vice President of WellBeing, answers questions about wellness at NMU.
Photo courtesy of NMU WellBeing
Photo courtesy of NMU WellBeing

Abigail Wyche was appointed as the Special Advisor for Mental Health and Wellness at Northern Michigan University in 2022. With the implementation of the WellBeing Department and Center in 2023, Wyche’s title has transitioned to the Assistant Vice President of WellBeing as part of President Tessman’s university realignment plan. Previous to her appointment, Wyche served as the department head of social work at NMU.

Since the Haveman Report was conducted and published in 2022, many concerns of student mental health and wellbeing have been brought to the attention of the campus community and NMU administrators. Wyche is the leading force in having these conversations at NMU.


Rachel Pott: Why are you passionate about personal well-being? 

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Abigail Wyche: “What is really cool is that my own personal passions line up with what NMU seems to be passionate about. That’s why I’m really excited to be in this role. It’s about making sure we’re intentional and diligent about caring for each other and also caring for each other in such a way that acknowledges that we are all human beings with lots of complex parts of our lives, and ways in which we can be well, and I’ve gained a lot of meaning out of my own life and career as a social worker in helping others. I’ve had my own sort of pains and struggles in my life and folks have helped me, but I have a strong empathy for others when they are struggling or going through pain and so with that, it’s really motivated me to learn about ways in which I can help others get through their struggles and arrive at a place where they’re finding their own meaning and joy in their lives. So, it’s fueled me as I continued to have the opportunity to do that.”


RP: Why do you think wellbeing is important, especially here at NMU?

AW: “Well NMU is all about helping students earn the degrees that they are looking for, and earning a degree and getting an education is one of those things that can have a tremendous impact on our future quality of life or well-being. At the same time, our quality of life or our well-being has a tremendous impact on how successful we can be and our ability to achieve that goal and earn our degrees and our education. So that’s why it’s important that we do this WellBeing work to ensure that there’s access and support for students to engage in the inner work they might need to, alongside their academics, but for them to also have healthy social lives – to have resources to help them meet their basic needs, for them to find ways to ensure that their basic needs are met, and for them to feel like they belong to this community. Those are all so important and as we work on those, that can only help strengthen that academic experience for students.”


RP: What are some of the initiatives and purposes of the new WellBeing department?

AW: “I’ll talk about what the latest thing is that we’re doing with WellBeing, and that is our care team initiative. So, the care team consists of employees at the university with expertise in student affairs, academic affairs, human resources, mental health, physical health, student conduct and campus safety. The team’s purpose is to identify, assess, and intervene with those individuals who are struggling or demonstrating concerning behavior. Part of what we’ve done for a while now with WellBeing, is trying to remove that stigma for seeking help when help is needed. And now we’re sort of working on a more proactive [approach] of identifying students when they are in distress and reaching out to them to help sort of wrap around them and help them get through that struggle. So that’s what the care team is all about, and then that care team uses a case management model. So as folks become more and more aware of what the care team is doing, they will hear more about our case managers, including Emily Meier, who is the new case management services director. She’s doing just that, when she’s hearing from the care team that someone could benefit from case management services, she’s reaching out. What case management is a little different from something like the Counseling Center, where you’d go to get counseling or therapy services. This is a non-clinical model, where the case managers sort of sit down with students and build that relationship to help students understand what are some of the things that are contributing to their struggles, and also help them tap into what their strengths are so that they can use those to move forward. Then sometimes we say ‘resources,’ a lot of times when we’re talking about WellBeing and oftentimes, we think of it as counseling, but there are other resources that are so important for helping folks get through and that’s, like I mentioned before, getting their basic needs met. Making sure that they have access to [treating or supporting] their physical health [and] that they have access to health services. So, Emily and her team can really help students make those connections and really facilitate them. Sometimes you need handholding, or you need someone sitting by you when you’re making a phone call, and that’s kind of what the case managers can do to help ensure that you make those connections. Not just [leaving] somebody on their own to find those things.


RP: What are some mental health trends, that you know of, among college students in the U.S.?

AW: “We just completed our Healthy Mind survey at NMU. Nationally, about 44% of students surveyed were experiencing symptoms of depression, so that’s nearly half of college students, and 37% for anxiety. But the good news is that the most latest versions of Healthy Minds data is showing that more and more students are seeking help. So, there has been some improvement I hope, from what we’re seeing in this data around that stigma or at least the knowledge [for] students about what’s available to them so that they are reaching out and getting that help that they need. There are lots of things that the health data digs into, but [one] thing that it shows is that there are some significant inequities when it comes to mental health outcomes as well as persistence and retention as a student working towards graduation among minority college students. So, lots of universities are taking that data and making sure that what they’re doing to support well-being is helpful to everyone.” 


RP: Can you explain more about this idea of holistic/multi-dimensional health? Is this becoming a common thing across the U.S.?

AW: “NMU signed on to the Okanagan Charter last April, and that’s a document that is something that a lot of U.S. universities have aspirations to adopt. When we signed it, we were the seventeenth in the country … to sign, but there are close to 200 institutions who are part of the network of folks who are interested or aspiring to sign [he] Okanagan Charter. The Okanagan Charter is a document that defines health holistically, and what [the] Okanagan charter means by that is again strengths-based, that it’s not merely the absence of disease that makes somebody healthy. It’s the presence of strengths and then it’s also an understanding that it’s multi-dimensional. So, what we’re working on right now and the way we talk about WellBeing, is as an eight-dimension wheel. There are eight dimensions: intellectual, career, physical, social, spiritual, emotional, environmental and financial – and they’re all very connected. One of the things that the Okanagan Charter does is help us understand what we mean by holistic health. It also says that it’s important that if we are going to be a well-being-promoting university, we really [need to] embed well-being across campus, from the administration to academics, to everything sort of that encompasses the student experience. So that’s what we’re working on here in the WellBeing department. We’re thrilled that our administration has committed to doing that and the campus community is continuing to have a lot of enthusiasm around working towards the calls to action of the Okanagan Charter.”


RP: What is the WellBeing Department and other departments/administration at NMU doing to support students holistically? 

AW: “I think that a lot of universities are interested in adopting the Okanagan Charter, and we’re kind of at the forefront of that group. I think [NMU is] a little unique, even from those universities, using this care team and case management model as a way to promote holistic health on our campus. So that’s a unique way of looking at WellBeing.”


RP: Is there anything else you would like to share about WellBeing at NMU?

AW: “I did want to mention that if a student is finding themselves struggling, they can refer themselves to the care team. But also, if a student is concerned about one of their friends or classmates, or roommates, or something like that– they can also make a referral to the care team, and that forum where you can do that is available at NMU. We’ve also hired a new WellBeing Promotions Coordinator, Jessica Corkin, who among other things will be helping us with coordinating our ‘Be Well in Winter’ Campaign.  Northern’s 2024 ‘Be Well in Winter’ campaign is a series of opportunities for the campus to learn about and care for ourselves, as whole persons and as a community. We will be sharing our plans for some fun new events and activities for the Winter semester very soon.”

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