Innovative solutions at UF are supporting students’ mental health well-being

Three male students stand around a waist-high

Students play giant Connect 4 outside on UF's campus.

Welcome to From Florida, a podcast where you’ll learn how minds are connecting, great ideas are colliding and groundbreaking innovations become a reality because of the University of Florida. 

For UF’s Student Life division, helping the university’s more than 55,000 students connect and thrive over the past 18 months was a challenge as the pandemic and social issues escalated the common pressures of the college years. Student Life Vice President D’Andra Mull shares how UF adapted and expanded services to connect students to campus services and to each other. She also discusses the innovations that worked so well they are being continued. Produced by Nicci Brown, Brooke Adams, Patricia Vernon and James L. Sullivan. Original music by Daniel Townsend, a doctoral candidate in music composition in the College of the Arts.

For more episodes of From Florida, click here.


Nicci Brown: Welcome to From Florida, where you will learn how minds are connecting, great ideas of colliding and groundbreaking innovation is becoming a reality because of the University of Florida. I'm your host, Nicci Brown.

The University of Florida is among the nation's largest campuses with more than 54,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students. That is a lot of students, which means UF’s Division of Student Life fills a leading role on our campus, with more than 25 departments and 2,500 full- and part-time employees.

The role of Student Life was especially important in ensuring our students stayed connected to our campus and each other during the pandemic. Student Life also plays a vital role in meeting the mental health needs of our students.

There have been numerous reports about the mental health challenges faced by college students today — not only because of the pandemic, but in general. We're going to talk about that and how UF's Student Life division has come up with innovative ways to address students' mental health and help our students thrive.

My guest today is Vice President D'Andra Mull. She joined us in January 2020 from The Ohio State University, where she served as associate vice president of Student Life and dean of students. Welcome Vice President Mull, we are delighted to have you as our guest today!

Vice President D'Andra Mull: Thank you so much, Nicci. I'm also very delighted to be here with you all.

Nicci Brown: Well, you chose to come to UF at one heck of a time!

Vice President Mull: Yeah. It seems like I have perfect timing in this space — three weeks before we learned of this small event, that we thought would be over within a few months, and, ha! Here we are.

Nicci Brown: Right! So, I shared a little bit about your background before you arrived here at UF, but we'd love to know more. What led you to a career in Student Life?

Vice President Mull: Absolutely. So when I began my undergraduate student career, it was with the intention of going to law school upon graduation. I did what many students will find themselves doing and that is exploring career opportunities through things such as internships or externships and leadership experiences, and I actually completed an internship.

During that internship, while I recognized how much my time spent with the lawyer was amazing, I loved what she did for her. But for me I also learned that's not what I want to do with my career. I did know that I really wanted to be in a space where I could advocate for those who perhaps didn't always have a voice in the conversation or a seat at the table. And so I went back to my mentor, who was the vice president for student affairs and vice-president for enrollment management, and I said to her, "I'm wrapping up this internship and I don't want to be a lawyer anymore."

She said, "Well, I figured you'd come to that conclusion. As I've walked through your internship experience with you this summer, you've spoken very highly of it, but I could sense that there was some tension between what you eventually want to do and what you're saying to me now. So I figured you'd get to this point." And I was like, "Well, should've told me that a long time ago, then maybe I would have saved some time!" But no, it was an awesome experience, and she said to me, I'll never forget. She said, "Who do you want to help? How do you want to live your values?" Something to that effect. And I said to her, "Well, I love advocating. I love being in spaces where I can really tell the story of why things should matter. And perhaps what we do to move needles and really shift some things in favor of audiences or groups that I've been able to work with."

And she said, "Have you ever thought about a career in Student Life? — or, she said student affairs at that point. And I said, "Well, no. What's that?" She's like, "It's what you do every day." I was student body president, president of my sorority. So for me, it was just an opportunity for me to figure out how all that came full circle. And I was like, "Oh, you all get paid to do this?" And so that was how I began my journey into the profession. It was definitely being in the right place at the right time with the right mentor and being able to take the right risks, because I think sometimes we get caught in a journey where we've gone along a path for so long that we don't want to shift. I'm glad that I had a mentor that had the courage to say to me, "Hey, it's okay to change." And then also for me to realize that just because it's your time doesn't mean it's your door. So it was certainly my time to graduate, but my door looked different to advocacy than I thought it would.

Nicci Brown: Yeah. That sort of self-reflection is so important and also having that guidance. And it's a perfect segue, I guess, to what you're doing now that you started off with that guidance.

Vice President Mull: Absolutely. The work that I do now allows me to make magic happen for students, with the leadership of the amazing team of professionals that make that happen and students and graduate students alike. And so it certainly is a very big operation. As you mentioned earlier, we have 2,500-plus professional and peer-professional employees helping guide the way. We have 25+ departments that make it all happen, ranges with everything from counseling and the wellness center to our GatorWell office or our recreational sports, our residence life and education to a multicultural diversity affairs area. We run the gamut and make sure that students not only leave with an education, but they leave with an experience. We really do work to make sure that we prepare Gators to engage, transform and thrive. And again, having a team that's centered in that, whose mission is to live their values out loud and help students find their purpose and passion certainly allows me to come to work every day, find my broom and get in, and do good work.

Nicci Brown: Sounds terrific. It is a challenging job though, and I think we all know that even in the best of times that the college years can be stressful and very challenging for young people. And that has been especially true over the past several years due to the pandemic and many other societal events. What have you seen at UF and has there been an increase in students’ mental health needs?

Vice President Mull: One hundred percent. We have been acutely aware of what's going on nationally and we've seen that reflected in our student population here at UF. We've seen an increase in need, which goes together with an increase in communication and our proactive outreach in the de-stigmatization of mental health. We want students to know that it's okay to know when you need to get some assistance, right? No different than if I'm writing a paper and I realize that perhaps I'm having a writer's block or I have some anxiety going on, it's okay for me to reach out to someone who has either walked the journey or is trained to offer me guidance. And so helping students to first recognize that it's okay to ask for help, that we are made to have helpmates, we are made to ask for assistance, we are not made to go this alone, and to put in place the resources that allow them to do that.

We've seen this through the lens of student anxiety and mental health needs. We've seen it with some just simply managing the stress. We've seen some distracted learning environments. So we run the gamut of what we've always seen. I've seen some students who need to have their weekly visits with our mental health professionals. That's what helps them stay guided. That's what helps them feel safe and supported in the environment and so we've certainly worked to make sure that we can provide that service.

We also know that we have students who simply need help in areas of, whether it's healthy eating habits, it may be they're coming into an environment that is more stressful, and so they've either forgotten those grounding principles of health and nutrition, so they need some help finding their way. So, we have our offices like the GatorWell health promotion services who allows our students to find their way that way.

We have recreational sports. And so we think of health and wellness as a large scale, not simply what happens in the mind, but also what happens in the body. We think it's all interconnected and so we try to make sure our services and our support for students help them to recognize that help comes from many different directions and it is about the whole body and the whole student and the multiple dimensions of wellness that keeps us all healthy, engaged and thriving.

Nicci Brown: Do you think that some of the comments we've had from high-profile young leaders, such as Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, has really helped students to recognize that and to come out and seek help but also understand that it is a holistic approach, if you're going to succeed in one thing you need to take care of your entire self?

Vice President Mull: Yes. Without question. I think that the best thing about folks really being comfortable moving in and speaking out about their needs is that it allows students to see mirrors and reflections of themselves.

I believe that both Naomi and Simone have given students the courage to say, "I see you. And because of the fact that I see you, I now also see me a bit better." And so it allows them to go into spaces and really understand that they're not in this alone. The stories that Simone and Naomi and others like them have shared with students allows them to, again, know that this is not about a fight on their own. Whether it's stress management or this idea of the mental health stresses they may have, maybe it's healthy eating. Whatever that looks like, we have lots of representatives across the national media scope that allow our students to understand that they're human and that is not a weakness to know that everything doesn't align perfectly on every day.

There are some days where it's going to take you a little bit longer to get out of bed, perhaps. There are some days you're going to spend a little more time struggling as you try to sleep. There are some days when you're going to really say, “You know what? I can't go to that meeting after classes today because I'm just worn out." And I think that Naomi and Simone and, again, the whole community of folks who are so courageously speaking out about the fact that sometimes they're not feeling okay, has been very instrumental in helping our students to feel more comfortable doing that as well. It reduces the stigma in ways that we need to have done.

The reduction in stigma here means an increase in uptake and services, but for us that's okay. I think the best thing you can do is get help before you need it. And when you need it or wait until you're so far down the road, it's kind of like your warning lights that come on on your dashboard, you deal with that check engine light before it becomes an engine failure.

The check engine light is essentially telling you, "Hey, there's something that's going wrong. There's something that's a bit off in this space. Let's get it checked out and worked out before we can actually get to a place where it becomes harder for us to get to the heart of what's going on and it takes more resources to help correct course or offer support." So I think that Simone and Naomi both offer us a gut check, a reality check point. It is certainly a stop in the road for us to say as a university community, "Hey, we have a lot of students who literally are mirror images to these high-achieving athletes that we have in front of us. We have a lot of students, whether they're achieving academically or in athletic fields, who are putting a lot of pressure on themselves and we are, too.”

So how do we make sure that what we do, as we have high expectations, we also understand there may be high needs and that we offer roadways to their success that allows them to, again, look in the mirror and see the things that others may see in themselves and they can recognize that. But then we also offer support that allows them to grow and bloom from what they've learned.

Nicci Brown: I know that during the pandemic Student Life instituted several measures to give students as much of a typical campus experience as possible and to help them connect with other students. Can you share a little more about those innovations?

Vice President Mull: Yes. So, the pandemic certainly brought a lot of things to light for all of us. One of the biggest truths that we saw come out was that our students are deeply social. We know that it doesn't matter if the world is experiencing a pandemic, it doesn't stop the fact that we all need connection. We knew that that was true for our students, we watched how they navigated it. We watched them struggle in the very beginning as we told everyone that we have to hunker down and make sure that we're being safe. We didn't change our scope from being safe, but we moved away from talking about “social distancing” to talking about “physical distancing.” That was a critical movement and step on behalf of the University of Florida. We knew that for students, they live in social spaces. I can't imagine most of our students not having owned a cell phone at some point in their formative years.

They've always grown up with the internet. I remember I used dial up. My first experience with the internet was dial-up and someone would jump on the call and be like, "You have to get off the line. I'm really trying to do some work here." But for them, how do we keep them engaged in spaces and ways so they knew the university still cared and was committed to their success, while also honoring the pandemic that was blowing up largely across the world. So again, we made sure that we had ways to connect that were innovative, inclusive and dynamic.

These range from the creation of the first virtual student union in the country at a large institution. So, what we did there, we launched our virtual student union to provide a hub for the programs, services and events that shape the student experience.

We did everything from comedy shows to check ins. We did meet ups. We did movie nights. We did a lot of things that allow students to still be in a space where they can engage. It became a really large sensation for students. We had millions of users of that space. Many of them were repeat users, others were one-time drop ins. They saw Tiffany Haddish, who's a very popular comedian and they wanted to hear from Tiffany Haddish. So, for them, it was really important that they could still engage in that experience. We also expanded our online classes. So, we talked a lot about the dimensions of wellness and so that's a big focus for us. We made sure the rec sport students could get up off their couches and literally engage with their rec sports from the comfort of their living room. That was very popular with students as well.

And so while we had the opportunity for students to come to campus and engage in rec sports by making sure that we made the areas smaller for students’ usage, made sure that they have some privacy, we also want to make sure the students knew that they could join wherever they were.

We also hosted a “pod” concert. We had an in-person concert where students could come and be in pods. All throughout the pandemic we talked about the power of “quaranteams,” T-E-A-M-S. We know that's important — that students are deeply social. We knew that if we did not create social outlets for them, they would create them for themselves. So, we made sure that we recognize that if you live in a house with four other students, it makes no sense for me to tell you that you can't attend a concert with them.

So we made sure that we had ways to really embrace and engage them while also honoring the pandemic. And I think that it's important to say that because I don't want to give the impression that we didn't understand what was going on around us, but we also understood the students that we were serving.

We had recharge days. We knew the students were just tired. We leaned into the benefits of the Florida weather and embraced the sunshine and had an outdoor day of activities. You could do painting. You could go and make a clay pot. You could get a T-shirt. You could make a tie-dye T-shirt. You can do a host of different things that just got you out into the sunshine and embraced what that meant for us. The way that that really does help us is that we had thousands of students that came out to take part in that. Heck, I came out for a cupcake, those cupcakes were delicious. So, we had different food stations. There are all types of things that we really did do to engage students. So again, we really did honor the pandemic, but also honored the needs of our students. We found ways to connect them to their student experience even though it looked a bit less traditional than they would have had in previous years.

Nicci Brown: And I'm guessing that even though, hopefully, we will be through the pandemic in some way, shape or form very soon, a lot of these innovations are things that we can build upon in the future.

Vice President Mull: Oh, absolutely. We will leave our virtual student union in place. We knew that for the first time, this was a time where some students who've never been able to engage in UF activities beyond their classroom experience, this became possible. Meanwhile, we have a lot of UF online students who are not here locally in Gainesville. For the first time they could attend the concert with their peers. They could see the comedian, see the expressions of laughter from their colleagues as they're on that screen. They could take part in a rec sports class, as well as others who are around them. So, knowing that what we did actually should be something we should continue to do, we've taken that seriously and so we will be leaving those services in place. The same for telehealth. While we had some telehealth resources and services that were available, we expanded the scope and scale big time. And so we will also continue to meet the needs of students.

If students want to meet virtually, we will give them that opportunity. For those students who want to be back in our counseling spaces, they will also have that as an option. We're not going to remove services, we're simply expanding them. And so again, the promise of what we learned from the pandemic is that there are more ways for us to meet the needs of students. And so we're certainly keeping those in mind as we move forward.

Nicci Brown: Well, I'd love to hear more about the innovative approaches that we've developed here at UF to care for, counsel and promote the well-being of our students.

Vice President Mull: Yeah, so there's a lot. I'm thinking, particularly, what we learned is that there were a lot of students who simply wanted some drop-in appointments, to be able to just say, "I need to drop in and touch base." I always think of it, as you think about the ability to just walk into Chipotle and place an order before they get there, then take their order and they go. In some ways, that's what students need. They just need, again, a gut check or a spot check, for someone to just say, "Hey, you're good. Let's talk about these stress management techniques." Or, "Hey, have you thought about this," or "Hey, let me help get you to the next resource." And so we prepared an a la carte program. So that is located in Peabody Hall and it offers brief, same day 20- to 30-minute consultations for students to make sure that we can get the right support for them.

So, it doesn't mean that you have to take time and wait, perhaps, for a counseling appointment, as you would in other spaces. We offer the ability for students, again, to stop, meet with a professional, make sure we're having them pointed in the right direction as they move forward.

Telemental health and telehealth services largely have become a much bigger spotlight for us. What we did learn from the pandemic, and I like to call it the promises of the pandemic, is there are ways for us to expand the services in ways we support students. We have a lot of students for whom telehealth services are now the way they'd like to go. If they don't want to come to campus, but they certainly want to talk to someone about what's going on in their lives or questions they may have or anxiety that may be valid, they can now literally jump on a Zoom call and do that. They can pick up a telephone and schedule an appointment to have that done as well.

So, it allows us to be nimble in our services to students and make sure we're meeting them where they are, and we literally mean that. Wherever they are at this point, we're able to meet their needs and make sure that we're supporting them. And again, we've also found that both the virtual and in-person counseling allows us to meet more students' needs. So, whereas previously, perhaps you had a 45-minute counseling session or a 30 minute counseling session and then there was a turnover because you're setting up your space, you're cleaning your space, you're doing all those things. We eliminate some of that time and we're able to spend more time directly with our students there as well.

And so we offer, through our partnership with SilverCloud, a self-guided program that students can download to help manage their stress and anxiety. There are many virtual spaces. We're moving into the AI space, the artificial intelligence space. We're really using different resources to make sure that students can get what they need wherever they are.

We’ve also launched My CWC, which is the virtual space for students to learn about services and resources available to support their mental health. Similarly to a lot of our outside of scope university resources, students can now go in and they can almost do a punch list of things that they're experiencing. They can talk about some of their symptoms. They can talk about some of the services they've already had before they'd gotten to the university and then they can figure out from there where they go. So, it's almost a self-guided tour to what you need with regards to assistance. And so students have really picked up and honed in on that and it helps them identify things that they didn't know existed within them. So, we ask a student about anxiety. They haven't identified it previously as anxiety, but it's helping them to understand, perhaps, when you're having these mini panic attacks, it goes back to stress. Let's talk about stress management techniques.

And then we also have Gator to Gator. We know that, again, I talk a lot about mirrors with students and the fact that we're all meant to be a mirror to someone. And so this initiative allows students to get connected to one of our trained student ambassadors for personal support and or referral information. So we're really pouring and leaning into our student-to-student dynamic here because, again, I think to your point earlier, Simone and Naomi allow us to see that we aren't the only ones going through some things alone and students being able to support other students allows us to reinforce that.

Nicci Brown: Yeah, it really sounds like by drawing in their peers, but also providing all these different touch points, what you're doing is normalizing and really, as you said, meeting students where they are and helping them to understand this is not something that they should feel ashamed of. This is a very normal human experience and allowing them to get the help they need when they need it.

Vice President Mull: Yes, absolutely. It's normal for a car to need gas, it's normal for a car that's electric to need to be recharged. It's very normal for a student to need to get support to help them go as well. And so we definitely want to double down on that and make sure that again, we're lifting the stigma and normalizing student success. Because student success runs a continuum, it doesn't just mean that you're successful in the classroom. It means that we're preparing all the tools that help you to be successful so that when you leave here, you're not just leaving with your education. You're leaving with an experience that you've learned, you've grown from, you've figured out how you manage, you've figured out how to build some resilience and, ultimately, you figure out how to thrive both here on campus and beyond.

Nicci Brown: Yeah, let's talk a little bit more about that because the GatorWell Health Promotion Services really does focus a lot on not just the success in college, but setting up those healthy habits so that when you do graduate you can build upon them throughout your life.

Vice President Mull: Yes. And so I am so proud of the work of Dr. Monica Webb with her team in the GatorWell space, because that is what they talk about. Wellness is not just a one-stop. It doesn't mean that because you're doing well academically, that means you're well. It doesn't mean that because you're hitting the gym regularly, that you're doing well. It means that it gives you the ability to focus on all the pieces and parts that keep you running smoothly. And so we talk a lot about the various dimensions of wellness with our students so that they know that it's okay to, again, figure out how all the pieces work together and get you really moved along. They do lead many of our upstream initiatives as they work to prevent issues before they become problems for students.

We do a lot of things in the reactive space, but GatorWell is the most proactive mental health or health and wellness initiative that we have. So, it's not just mental health. We have CWC that supports that as well. While GatorWell certainly helps to support student's mental health, they're all about health and wellness holistically. And so their holistic health model certainly allows students to grow in that space. It ranges from alcohol education, to time management to simply guidance and tools and consultations on a variety of levels. They partner closely with our Greek community, because we have such a large population of students that live in that space or thrive in that space. So they really are here to make sure that, along with our Student Life assessment and research team, we're figuring out what the patterns are for students, we're working to be proactive in that space for next classes of students to come and that we protect the well-being and promote the well-being of our students collectively.

We really do want to create whole initiatives and wellness initiatives and not simply focus on one dimension, but rhelping students recognize that wellness is a large scope. It goes to scale. It doesn't simply stay in one place or it doesn't focus on one particular element.

Nicci Brown: Well, it sounds like our students are in great hands. Thank you so much, Dr. Mull, for the work you're doing and your team and your partners. And also thank you for being our guests today, it was really terrific to speak with you.

Vice President Mull: Well, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. Anytime I get to talk about the amazing work of the Student Life team and our phenomenal students that we get to support as they move throughout their educational journey here, I'm always motivated by that. I know that I'm in the right place. I know that that conversation that I had with Dr. Nancy Scott many years ago that led me to this field was the right conversation to have. And hopefully we can continue to make sure that we're doing all we can to lead students in directions that allow them to be well holistically, too. So thank you for the opportunity.

Nicci Brown: Listeners, thank you for joining us for an episode of From Florida, where we share the stories of faculty researchers, students and administrators whose thought leadership is moving our state, our nation and our world forward. I'm your host, Nicci Brown. And I hope you'll return for our next story of innovation From Florida.


October 19, 2021