To understand how revolutionary adopting a new definition of well-being can be, Kristin Traskie conjures an image of well-being as a car on a road trip. The driver probably filled up on gas and maybe got an oil change and checked the tires to keep things running smoothly. As the drive continues, the engine starts to get too hot. Suddenly, the trip is in danger of crisis. When the engine starts smoking, things become dire.
Long before the engine sputters out, though, is a landscape of relatively unnoticeable, preventative measures which are unfortunately not as attention-grabbing as the interventions at the crisis end of the spectrum.
“Well-being is multi-dimensional, and therefore requires a systems approach, where we’re trying to keep people healthy, long before they enter crisis territory,” says Traskie, who is fitness and wellness coordinator in the Health Promotion department, which is part of Student Health and Wellness at MSU. “While people must receive appropriate and reactive treatment care when needed, there are also large-scale benefits to proactive, upstream approaches that will allow individuals and our community to remain healthy and well.”
The Illness-Wellness Continuum, first proposed by Dr. John Travis in 1972, depicts wellness on a sliding scale, with optimal health and wellness on the right and illness on the left. Throughout life, people move back and forth along the continuum.
According to Traskie, who also oversees the Exercise-is-Medicine On Campus initiative, keeping students, faculty and staff toward the neutral or higher levels of wellness on the well-being continuum is difficult, in part, because the term “well-being” is vague. Almost everyone can agree it’s important, but beyond that, definitions and approaches vary radically.
That’s where the new shared inter-association definition of well-being adopted by the University Well-Being Coalition (UWBC), which Traskie co-leads, comes in. The UWBC is a network of university partners working cross-functionally to create a healthier community for students, faculty and staff. It includes departments, academic units, and student organizations aligned on strengthening a culture of sustainable and equitable health well-being, according to Traskie.
The newly adopted definition originated with a statement by The National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) in “Health and Well-Being in Higher Education: A Commitment to Student Success.” Fifteen professional higher education organizations across the U.S. signed the statement, committing to co-creating a strategic, holistic approach from the association to the institutional level.
“We’re all living in this weird pandemic time and there’s this incredibly heightened awareness of mental health needs,” says Erica Phillipich, associate director in the Health Promotion department and the other co-leader of the UWBC. “Somehow along the way, in the past 18 months, I’ve seen a lot of messaging that implies well-being is equated only to mental health. Mental health is obviously a crucial initiative, but it’s only one aspect of well-being.”
The inter-association definition is, in part, about dispelling that narrow conception. It is not about semantics or rhetoric, say the UWBC staff, but about creating a beacon for those working on well-being to rally around, and a common, systemic conception of well-being as a foundation. It also allows for the flexibility to serve each unit’s students, faculty and staff based on their unique needs.
The simple definition adopted by UWBC and other associations reads as follows: “We define well-being as an optimal and dynamic state that allows people to achieve their full potential.” The expanded definition takes into account personal happiness, human rights, and community belonging.
“The UWBC is taking a grassroots approach to healthy campus initiatives,” says Traskie. “We’re bringing together the well-being and health promotion expertise of professionals across MSU and striving to systematically integrate sustainable health and well-being as a core value in MSU’s policies, programs, services and learning environments. We want to ensure we’re building from a shared understanding and foundation. This definition of well-being is the first step to that.”
Challenges to the Promotion of Well-being
One of the main obstacles to getting people on the same page about an expansive, actionable definition of well-being is its invisible nature when compared with higher-profile wellness measures, like counseling.
“Prevention isn’t exciting to people. It takes a long time to see behavior change and doesn’t make headlines,” says Phillipich. “That is where our biggest challenge lies. Prevention is not immediately gratifying in many ways. If we’re doing our jobs really well, and the interventions we’re doing are really working, you don’t hear about it.”
But research shows that anxiety, depression, and problems that require interventions often have many points of origin in an individual’s life. For instance, a student who is breaking up with a romantic partner, studying for finals, doesn’t exercise, and has no one to talk to is at greater risk for a mental health crisis. Adequate resources in just one of those areas may keep the student away from the precipice of crisis.
“If a student isn’t physically and mentally well, it’s really difficult for them to be successful academically,” says Liz Carr, the marketing and communications manager in Student Health and Wellness. “We ask ourselves constantly: how can we take a student who is really stressed out, for instance crushed with a big assignment, and give them the tools to cope with that and increase their capacity to think about something else?”
Carr says that a holistic approach might include an informal social interaction, tutoring, or burning some stress with exercise.
“We tend to focus on people at the illness end of the spectrum,” says Traskie. “When we look at people at the neutral point or people moving toward higher levels of wellness, and keeping them from drifting toward the illness side of the spectrum, those preventative, health-seeking behaviors, are like a safety net. By encouraging those behaviors, we can increase their capacity to move toward better wellness.”
Much like the rationale for flattening the COVID-19 curve to avoid overburdening our health systems, preventative well-being measures ensure that crisis and counseling services aren’t bottlenecked and have time to administer individualized care. This type of systems thinking is essential to a broader conception of student success and sustainable health, according to Traskie.
Besides being relatively invisible, another well-being challenge lies in the difficulty of measuring gains in the well-being sphere. It can all seem quite nebulous to the average observer, which includes everyone from budget allocators to students. To get a handle on what strides are being made, Carr recommends taking the long view.
“The Health Promotion team has a lot of interesting data from the national college health assessment (NCHA),” says Carr. “One of the things they found over the last 20 years of doing this survey is that a lot of health behaviors really improved over that 20-year period. It’s a long time and it may feel like we’re not making a ton of progress day-to-day. But when you look at longitudinal data, you can see that we are making progress in terms of well-being, even if it’s happening slowly. If we can bring folks together around this definition and in terms of systems thinking, we might be able to speed that process up.”
As an example, Carr points to alcohol consumption among MSU students. “Twenty years ago, about 31 percent of students consumed eight or more alcoholic drinks when they partied. Now, that figure is down to about 10 percent. So we see these significant changes in behavior when we zoom out of our day-to-day lens."
A New Definition Encourages Systems Thinking
Ultimately, the goal of rallying around a new well-being definition is to prompt systems thinking, and accordingly raise the well-being bar for the entire community.
“It’s all about building a culture of well-being that’s ingrained into the fabric of MSU. A culture that encourages and supports students’, faculty, and staff’s capacity to seek and engage in health promoting behaviors,” says Traskie. “That means looking at the whole person, the whole campus and the whole educational experience. It’s a systems approach, where we’re trying to change the built environment, look at people and policy, and at sustainable infrastructure. We always say we can’t ‘individualize’ ourselves out of a crisis or into a solution. A systems approach is a multidimensional goal and a shared responsibility of the whole institution.”