Faculty Spotlight: Natural Environment Benefits

As technology has increasingly become a prominent part of everyday life, outdoor activities often take a backseat. Arguably, students spend more time viewing other’s experiences on Facebook, Instagram and other social media than they do creating their own. It’s been documented that heavy use of technology and social media are linked to increased depressive and anxiety symptoms. Taking a break from technology and spending time indoors may have mental health benefits as spending time participating in outdoor activities and natural environments have been linked to increased self-efficacy, mindfulness and concentration.1,2

Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief that they can complete a task or succeed. Unsurprisingly, a higher sense of self-efficacy may be a preventative factor against the negative mental health impact of stress and other stressors students may face over the summer. As students are accustomed to their performance being measured by academics throughout the school year, students may find increased self-efficacy from physical and leisurely activities, such as hiking, camping, swimming, volleyball, and other outdoor experiences and sports.

Similarly, mindfulness, which refers to an individual’s ability to be present in the moment, may also see a boost when in natural environments. The college environment requires constant multi-tasking and can keep students in a perpetual state of heightened arousal due to the flexibility required to perform well in multiple classes and extracurriculars.1 In comparison, natural environments allow for more sustained attention and self-directed attention to the individual’s own thoughts and feelings.1

Attentional restoration theory (ART) suggests that urban environments, such as college campuses, may induce cognitive fatigue, impacting students’ ability to concentrate.2 As natural environments are considered restorative due to the decrease in executive-based attention that they require, it is beneficial for students to take time away from technology and urban environments to explore the outdoors, with summer being the prime time for outdoor experiences.

Summer is the ideal time for students to reset, relax, and prepare for the next year of school. Some students will utilize this time to plan outdoor adventures and immerse themselves in restorative environments. However, it is important to reach out and promote the mental health benefits of outdoor activities and environments to students that either reside in urban environments or may not realize the mental health benefits of the outdoors. Fortunately, reaping the benefits of natural environments can be as easy as reading a book outdoors instead of indoors. For students and faculty residing in Seattle over the summer, although SPU is in an urban environment, Seattle has a natural abundance of outdoor opportunities with easy access to parks and water. Lastly, it’s important to benefit from the sunshine in Seattle while it lasts!

1Mutz, M. & Müller, J. (2016). Mental health benefits of outdoor adventures: Results from two pilot studies. Journal of Adolescence, 49, 105-114. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.03.009

2 Pearson, D. G. & Craig, T. (2014). The great outdoors? Exploring the mental health benefits of natural environments. Frontiers in Psychology, 5(1178), 1-4. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01178

Faculty Spotlight: Summer Mental Health

Summer is the three months out of the year that, for many college students, is a time for fun recreational activities and a breather from the stress of classes. However, moving away from campus for the summer, leaving the productive academic environment, and changing relationships due to distance may actually be stressful. With approximately one-third of U.S. college students experiencing depressive symptoms (2013 National College Health Assessment), it is important to be aware of the potential mental health challenges college students will face over the summer.

Depression is a mental health condition, prevalent among college students. Symptoms of depression range from persistently sad, anxious, or "empty" mood, feelings of hopelessness, decreased energy, difficulty sleeping and changes in appetite. The transition from the routine and high-stress environment of college life to a less structured summer, can be stressful. The link between stress and depression can be seen through a shift from healthy and adaptive coping strategies during stressful events or transitions, allowing depressive symptoms to persist. The stress, coping, and depressive symptom cycle can be reoccurring, having a detrimental impact on mood, life satisfaction and productivity.

However, there are strategies students can employ prior to and during summer break to mitigate the potential negative consequences of the summer transition. Planning for activities, such as an internship or job, can stave off the anxiety-producing feeling of unproductivity. Additionally, students should be encouraged to take the summer break to explore and do the things they are unable to during the school year, such as camping, physical exercise, or making their way through a fun book list. Summer goals may be especially helpful for those students who are involved in multiple on campus activities and perform best under college stress.

Anticipating changing relationships due to summer break may also be beneficial for students. Students living on campus will be accustomed to living and being surrounded by peers. The transition from this stimulating social environment may be stressful for some, producing feelings of loneliness. Similarly, as relationships become strained due to distance, it’s important for students to be aware of the potential for relationships to change in intensity and closeness. Technology and social media may be helpful in staving off some of the feelings of loneliness, however, social media can also be anxiety producing as students view and see their friends having fun without them. Open discussions and realistic social expectations for summer may better prepare students for the shift from school to summer.

Summer mental health and prevention are important for college students as they will not have access to college campus mental health services, such as the counseling center. Fortunately, students can employ strategies such as summer goal planning and facilitating conversations around changing relationships to circumvent depressive symptoms.

Faculty Spotlight: Technology and Mental Health

There’s no denying the ubiquity of technology in students’ daily lives. We are already beginning to see how technology, especially social networking sites, impacts how we live, work, and communicate with each other. Given that technology impacts many other parts of our lives, it makes sense that technology also has an impact on students’ mental health.

Emerging research suggests that technology has both positive and negative impacts on mental health. Technology use has been linked to depression, anxiety, and lower self-esteem. Sleep can also ben impacted by technology use. Using a smartphone or tablet right before bed can make it harder to get to sleep. Technology has also been related to addictive qualities both with games and checking your devices.

Technology and social media also impact how students communicate by allowing 24/7 access to their peers. Rates of cyberbullying in college students are lower than those among high school-ers, but research suggests that almost 1 in 5 college students experiences cyberbullying. Social media has also been related to isolation from others because rather than connecting with others in person, students are spending more time online. Associated with isolation, social media has been related to the phenomenon of “Fear of Missing Out” or FOMO. FOMO is when it appears that others are having fun without you, and your worry about being left out.

On the other hand, technology can also have positive effects in students’ lives. Many students use technology to stay connected with friends and family. Technology also offers students the ability to access information quickly and can be a source of support. The mental health field is in the nascent stages of embracing technology as a means to provide services to more people. Students can use their smartphone for a wide range of supportive activities, like using a relaxation app, engaging with an online support network, or talking to their therapist. Technology can also encourage students to be active or get involved in their community through activity trackers and events promoted on their social networking sites.

As technology continues to change and grow, we will likely see different effects on how students use technology and how it impacts mental health. The bottom line is that technology and social media can be both positive, providing support and connection, and negative, a platform for cyberbullying and FOMO – it comes down to how it’s being used.

Faculty Spotlight: Mental Health Stigma

May is Mental Health Awareness Month! Mental health problems affect many college students. According to a national survey, 27% of students reported they experience depression, 24% experience bipolar disorder, 11% experience anxiety, and 12% experience other mental health problems, including eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or autism spectrum disorder.

Stigma refers to the negative attitudes and misperceptions about people with mental health conditions. It can lead to stereotypes, like “people with mental illness are dangerous and unpredictable.” Some students may encounter stigma against mental health from their family, friends, and community. Others may experience self-stigma, meaning that they internalize the stigma against mental illness that is prevalent in society. Self-stigma leads to lower self-esteem, lower self-efficacy, and hopelessness.

Stigma is a significant barrier to seeking treatment among college students. In fact, 36% of students with mental health problems noted that stigma stops them from seeking help. Mental health stigma also differentially impacts students from different racial backgrounds. Research shows that stigma predicts less help seeking for mental health problems most strongly among Arabic and Asian American students, followed by African American and mixed race students.

One of the best ways to combat stigma is to be informed. Here’s what faculty and staff can do to combat the stigma against mental illness:

  • Know the common warning signs of mental illness
  • Be proactive in connecting students to resources and encouraging students to seek help
    • 22% of students say they learn about mental health resources from faculty or staff
  • Reach out to students to voice your concerns
    • Try saying “I’ve noticed that you’re [late to class more, look more fatigued]. Is everything ok?”
    • “I’ve noticed you aren’t acting like yourself. Is something going on?”
  • Know that mental health conditions are real and as serious as physical health issues
  • Understand the students with mental health problems are able to be successful in school




Faculty Spotlight: Relationship Problems

College is a time when students are having to balance and maintain many different relationships at once, with roommates, family, romantic partners, friends, and with faculty and staff. Relationship problems among college students are relatively common, and about one-third of college students report having problems in their roommate and romantic relationships. Relationship problems can also interfere with students’ academic success, making them important to address.

There are many different types of problems that students can have in relationships. Some may have verbal arguments or physical fights with others, some may have trouble trusting others, some may have difficulty communicating with others, and some may even be in abusive relationships. Common themes that come up among roommate conflicts are cleanliness, noise levels, or having friends over. These problems along with many problems that students may face in their friendships can be solved through talking with their resident advisor or a trusted third-party or learning some effective communication skills.

Some students have difficulty communicating with their friends, family members, or professors. While some students who have difficulty with communication can benefit from some simple communication skills, others may have larger problems with social communication that lead to significant impairment in relationships. Common signs of students with social communication problems or deficits include:

  • Language or communication: using very literal language, difficulty modulating the volume of their voice, difficulty understanding jokes, metaphors, idioms, or other subtleties of language
  • Social interaction: difficulty making eye contact, difficulty making friends, difficulty initiating, maintaining, or ending a conversation, difficulty understanding social norms, difficulty understanding other’s emotions
  • Behavior: interrupts others, becomes tangential in answering questions, strong reactions to sensory cues (lights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch), may engage in self-soothing behavior, like rocking or tapping, and fixation on certain concepts, objects, or patterns.

As faculty and staff, you can support students with social communication deficits by meeting with the student privately if behavioral issues are disrupting the classroom. Work with the student to solve these problems in order to help the student succeed. If the student has classroom accommodations, make sure to respect them and talk with the student to make sure you are both on the same page.

Other students may be in abusive relationships. Abusive relationships may take many forms and can include verbal, emotional, sexual, or physical abuse. Some common signs that a student may be in an abusive relationship, include: excessive lateness or unexplained absences, frequent illnesses, unexplained injuries or bruising, changes in appearance, being distracted during class, drops in productivity, and being sensitive about discussing their relationships. If you are concerned about a student who may be in an abusive relationship, here are some things you can do to help:

  • Meet with the student in private
  • Recognize that the student may be fearful or vulnerable
  • Remember that abusive relationships involve complex dynamics, including high levels of denial and may be difficult to change
  • Refer the student to the counseling center
  • Encourage the student to connect with people they trust

There are also some things to avoid when talking with students who are in abusive relationships. Try to avoid downplaying the situation, lecturing the student about poor judgment, or expecting the student to make quick changes.

Relationship problems for college students exist along an entire spectrum, and there are many different reasons that students could be having difficulty with others. As faculty and staff the biggest thing that you can do is meet with students privately, in order to understand what is going on and offer support.

Faculty Spotlight: Emotion Regulation

College students face many stressors on a day-to-day basis. They may be leaving home for the first time, have intense pressure to do well academically, are developing a plan for their future career, may be trying to establish a romantic or social life, and are finding a balance between all of these things. In fact, many reports have shown that college students are experiencing more stress now than in years past. Furthermore, college students’ ratings of their emotional health has been decreasing for the past 49 years!

Often when students are stressed, they experience more negative emotions. Experiencing intense and overwhelming negative emotions can be aversive, so many students try to get rid of their negative feelings. Emotion regulation is a term that is used to describe a person’s efforts to manage, change, or avoid emotional experiences. College students use a lot of different strategies to regulate their emotions, and some of those strategies are healthy, while others are unhealthy.

Healthy emotion regulation strategies do not cause harm and can help diffuse strong negative emotions, allowing for a greater understanding of what caused a particular emotion. Examples of healthy emotion regulation strategies are:

  • Talking to friends
  • Exercising
  • Journaling
  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Taking a break when it’s needed

Unhealthy emotion regulation strategies are ways of dealing with emotions that may lead to harm, damage, or additional stress. These strategies may also lead to avoidance of problems that will eventually need a solution. Examples of unhealthy emotion regulation strategies that college students use are:

  • Alcohol and substance use
  • Self-injury
  • Avoidance or withdrawal
  • Physical aggression
  • Binge eating and/or purging

Many college students use a mix of both healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation strategies. Some use of unhealthy emotion regulation strategies may be normal as part of the developmental process and learning how to effectively cope with stress. However, there are also times when students’ use of unhealthy emotion regulation strategies becomes a problem. This usually happens when these unhealthy strategies interfere with students’ academics, work, social relationships, physical health, or spiritual health. If you notice a student who is struggling with managing their emotions or their use of unhealthy emotion regulation strategies is becoming a problem, consider reaching out to them to provide support.





Faculty Spotlight: Being Body Positive

This month we recognize Eating Disorder Awareness Week (February 26th – March 4th). Eating disorders are serious, complex conditions that impact health, emotional wellbeing, and relationships. They can even result in death. Nationally, eating disorders impact approximately 20 million women and 10 million men. Even more people struggle with disordered eating patterns and body image concerns. Maladaptive beliefs about body weight and shape begin at a young age (e.g., 42% of elementary school girls want to be thinner) and can develop into problematic behaviors and beliefs during adolescence and young adulthood. Furthermore, eating disorders are highly comorbid with depression, anxiety, suicide, substance abuse, and relationship violence.

In the college setting, eating disorders or body image concerns can interfere with students’ academic functioning, extracurricular activities, and interpersonal and familial relationships. As faculty and staff there are some signs you can look for in students who are struggling with an eating disorder or body image:

  • Significant increase or decrease in weight
  • Dressing in layers or wearing bulky clothing to hide weight loss
  • Preoccupation with food or weight loss
  • Regimented or unusual eating habits or secretive eating
  • Food restriction, bingeing, or purging behaviors
  • Excessive exercise
  • Comments indicating distorted body image

If you are concerned about a student, consider talking with them.

There has been a recent emergence of movements that are aimed at combatting societal pressures to look a certain way or be a certain weight. One organization, The Body Positive, has started to work towards ending the harmful consequences of negative body image. In the Body Positive model, health is greater than just body image or weight – it is the interconnection of psychological, emotional, and physical aspects of a person’s life. Their model is based on five core competencies:

  1. Reclaim Health: uncover messages that influence your relationship with you body, food, and exercise to develop a weight-neutral, health-centered approach to self-care
  2. Practice Intuitive Self-Care: learn to listen to and follow your body’s wisdom to eat, exercise, and live intuitively
  3. Cultivate Self-Love: develop a practice of self-love to employ compassion, forgiveness, and humor as you leave behind self-criticism
  4. Declare your own authentic beauty: experience beauty as a creative, dynamic process and inhabit your unique body with joy and confidence
  5. Build community: connect with others through a shared positive approach to beauty, health, and identity, and become a role model of love and respect for your own body

Achieving proficiency in these competencies allows individuals to focus on their purpose, values, and life goals.

Last year SPU’s counseling center hosted a body positive week that was very successful. Watch for more information about this year’s event!

Faculty Spotlight: Recognizing Substance Use Among Students

marijuana-infographicAlcohol and drug use are significant concerns on college campuses nationwide. Alcohol is typically the substance of choice at many colleges, with many students engaging in binge drinking. College students have been shown to binge drink and be intoxicated more than their non-college peers. Additionally, the Washington State Legislature recently legalized marijuana in 2012, and it remains unclear how that will effect college students. One study, found that marijuana use has increased by 3% since its legalization among high school students in Washington. According to the Washington State Marijuana Impact Report, young adults (age 18-25) in Washington also have a higher rate of marijuana use compared to young adults nationwide. Furthermore, marijuana use among college students has been increasing over the past 10 years.


At SPU, there were 22 drug abuse violations and 59 liquor law violations in 2015, which is an increase from the previous two years. According to the SPU Biennial Review, approximately 25% of students living in traditional residence halls and 50% of students living in on-campus apartments report using alcohol. Additionally, approximately 19% of students living in traditional residence halls report experiencing a negative impact from their peers’ alcohol use.

There are many reasons for why a student is using substances. They may be using alcohol or drugs to attempt to cope with negative emotions and anxiety or to deal with the many stresses that accompany college life. Students may also report using substances to “relax” or “have fun.” Unfortunately, substance use can lead to many consequences for students, including academic problems, relationship loss, interpersonal violence or sexual assault, or even alcohol poisoning. Some of the signs of substance use among students are:

  1. A decline in class attendance, like tardiness or more frequent sickness
  2. A decline in school performance, like missed deadlines or not performing to typical level of ability
  3. Physical signs, like bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, poor hygiene, or sudden weight loss or gain
  4. Behavioral signs, like avoiding eye contact, fatigue, or hyperactivity
  5. Changes in mood, like depression, emotional instability, increase in anger or irritability

As faculty and staff, there are some simple things you can do if you have concerns about a student who you believe may be struggling with substance use:

  • Treat the problem seriously.
  • Broach the topic with permission.
    • Try saying: “Would it be okay if we talked about…” or “I may be wrong, but I’ve noticed…”
  • Express concern for the student.
    • Try saying: “I’m concerned about…”
  • Offer support and willingness to help.
  • Provide resources.

Want to learn more? The Wellness Initiative is hosting Seeing Double: Separating Substance Use Fact from Fiction – a one-day program on January 24th, 2017 that will provide students with information about alcohol and marijuana use.  Join us all day long to “Test Your Vision” in interactive activities, get your questions about alcohol and drug use answered from an expert panel, and learn the latest science behind alcohol and marijuana use at our evening keynote address.



Vitamin D: Winter Update

As we are now squarely in the winter season; the daylight hours are shorter; the weather is colder; and the end of the quarter – accompanied by all of its stress – is here. Seattle has one of the lowest rates of clear skies in the country, with clear skies occurring only about 28% of the time during the winter months. Furthermore, many people in the Pacific Northwest experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, which has symptoms similar to depression. Signs and symptoms include: fatigue, low energy, increased appetite, and feeling sad or down.


One common explanation for changes in mood during the winter is reduced direct sunlight. It can be hard to find time to get outdoors in the winter, which in turn can impact the amount of Vitamin D we get from sunlight. Although the link between Vitamin D and problems with mood is not fully understood, there does seem to be evidence that Vitamin D is related to levels of serotonin in the brain. When we get less exposure to sunlight, thus getting less Vitamin D, our serotonin levels also go down. Lower serotonin is generally related to increases in depression. In fact, many medications that are used to treat depression target serotonin levels.

While increasing Vitamin D levels doesn’t help everyone improve their mood, many people do report benefits. There are several ways to make sure we get adequate Vitamin D when our access to sunlight is limited:

  • Try getting small amounts of sunlight throughout your day. When it’s not raining, consider going for a short walk during lunch or between meetings and classes. All of the smaller amounts can add up to help you get enough exposure to the UVB rays.
  • Eat foods that are high in Vitamin D. Fatty fish, like salmon, eggs, fortified milk, orange juice, cheese, and mushrooms all contain large amounts of Vitamin D.
  • Some experts recommend using sun lamps or light boxes that produce a full-spectrum bright light to increase Vitamin D. These lights that are made for light therapy don’t increase risk for skin cancer, unlike tanning beds.
  • Vitamin D supplements have mixed evidence in terms of improving mood. At this point, research does not clearly indicate that taking Vitamin D supplements improves mood.

If you are someone who typically starts feeling down during the winter, it may help to start adding some of the tips above into your day. Exercise, whether indoors or outside, also has been consistently shown to improve mood. If none of these tips work for you, consider reaching out for help from friends or family, your church community, or a mental health therapist.

Faculty Spotlight: Impact of Sleep on Wellness

Sleep is important for faculty, staff, and students. Getting an adequate amount of sleep helps faculty and staff perform their job duties to the best of their abilities and helps students participate fully in their education. According to research conducted by the National Sleep Foundation, the following amounts of sleep are recommended for each age group:

  • 18-25 years old: 7-9 hours
  • 25-64 years old: 7-9 hours
  • 65+ years old: 7-8 hours

One recent national study used activity trackers to monitor how much college students sleep – they found that 46.2% of students are not getting enough sleep. Sleep deficiency is a big problem for both students and faculty and staff. It has also been linked to many negative effects on wellness:

  • Increased chance of illness, including colds, the flu, and high blood pressure
  • Feeling stressed and difficulty coping with stress
  • Decreased academic performance
  • Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety
  • Difficulty making decisions, concentrating, and problem solving
  • Impaired general functioning



As faculty and staff you may see students that are experiencing sleep deficiency. Some common signs include: falling asleep in class, inability to focus, irritability, and slower reaction time. If you notice a student that may be having difficulty getting enough sleep, consider talking with them and offering support. More information about how to develop a plan help you sleep well can be found here.