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Colleges are offering 'wellness days' to students. Not everyone is on board

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Students are readjusting to campus life after studying online for much of the pandemic, and colleges are taking new approaches to support them. But are there any easy fixes? From GBH in Boston, Kirk Carapezza reports.

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KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: Here at Northeastern University in Boston, this semester, administrators are encouraging students take up to two wellness days, saying the lack of time for students to nurture their mental health impacts their academic performance. So on a sunny fall morning, I visited the urban campus in Roxbury and asked Northeastern students how they planned to spend their two wellness days.

AMULYA ACHARYA: I think I'll just take some time to wind down and, you know, cool off for a bit.

DANIEL MYRICK: Hang out, see my friends - I have no clue.

ASHLEY WALLACE: My two wellness days are going to be spent doing work that's due as soon as we get back from the wellness day.

CARAPEZZA: That's graduate student Amulya Acharya and second-years Daniel Myrick and Ashley Wallace. They're all skeptical of their university's decision to give students a couple of days to relax.

So it won't really help you nurture your mental health?

WALLACE: Not really because I missed class for the wellness day, and now I have to, like, gear up for going back to class two days later.

MYRICK: It seems like it's something that's been done on the administration side, but it's not something professors are actually integrating into their classrooms.

ACHARYA: Life here is so fast-paced and busy.

CARAPEZZA: Northeastern isn't alone in announcing it's catering to their students' mental health. After cases of student anxiety and depression skyrocketed during the pandemic, college presidents said mental health was consistently among their top concerns. Berkshire Community College in western Massachusetts is offering a wellness day every year. And in Iowa, Grinnell College has introduced something called Working Differently Days. Twice per semester, all school activities are canceled, including all classes and athletics. The goal? To give the campus community a collective mental break. The idea is seeping into other industries, too, with some employers giving staff days to ease their COVID-related stress.

MARKIE PASTERNAK: Since the pandemic, mental health has become a focal point issue.

CARAPEZZA: Markie Pasternak with the national student network Active Minds says offering wellness days is, above all, a gesture that signals administrators or, in the workplace, brass, are prioritizing mental health.

PASTERNAK: And in turn, that helps people to kind of relax a little bit and be more open and change the culture around mental health on their campus.

CARAPEZZA: But some educators see a day off as an easy way out.

JOSIPA ROKSA: It's, unfortunately, something that we oftentimes resort to in higher ed.

CARAPEZZA: That's sociologist Josipa Roksa. She teaches education at the University of Virginia in Richmond and is the co-author of the book "Academically Adrift." Her research finds, despite soaring tuition costs, most Americans strive to go to college, but once there, undergrads spend very little time studying. Instead, they're socializing or partying and, as a result, show limited gains in critical thinking, the hallmark of American higher education. And Roksa is skeptical whether giving students a couple of days to chill will help.

ROKSA: It's almost like saying, let's run 50 miles an hour 360 days a year, and then let's take one day when we can actually rest, and then let's go back on the treadmill and a crazy schedule the day after.

CARAPEZZA: To deal with mental health issues on campus, Roksa recommends colleges adjust their grading, consider getting more flexible with assignments and deadlines and take steps to improve the academic experience. Back at Northeastern, second-year student Ashley Wallace says the pandemic continues to negatively affect her mental health.

WALLACE: You're not really used to, like, being back, like, in full gear. Like, the world is sort of, like, starting to turn back on.

CARAPEZZA: And, she says, a lot of her classmates are still off. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kirk Carapezza
Kirk is a reporter for the NPR member station in Boston, WGBH, where he covers higher education, taking the time to capture the distinct voices of students and faculty, administrators and thought leaders.