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Concordia rolls out first SMART lab in Wisconsin to help students with mental health struggles

Posted at 1:11 PM, Dec 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-19 00:05:04-05

MEQUON — Many colleges are seeing the amount of students looking to them for mental health resources almost double, without enrollment going up. Some local schools are having to get creative when it comes to helping those students.

Concordia University is rolling out the first SMART (Stress Management and Resiliency Training) Lab in Wisconsin. Students we talked with during the soft opening of the space are big fans.

"I can come in and kind of - ya know like, like have just a deep like a breath of fresh air," said Carrie Robinson.

"I think coming here by yourself and just relax and calming down and go back to your homework, I think that's the biggest thing," said Tre Hicken.

"It's just amazing," said Rachel Bender. "I mean the atmosphere and the surroundings, it's just super peaceful and definitely a lot of resources that I could see myself using in the future."

Beckie Kruse, director of residence life at Concordia, came up with the idea and a grant made it possible.

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"We are giving them tools is what we're doing, and that is exactly what we do in a college setting anyway," said Kruse.

Students can get trained in coherent breathing technology.

"You're learning how to work your heart, match your heart rate up with the way you breathe," said Kruse.

The idea is to eventually get students away from technology.

"That's what the massage chairs are about," said Kruse. "You start having a little bit more mindfulness of what's happening physically with your body. The weighted blanket on the papasan is also there very intentional. That's a place of comfort and helps students feel grounded."

Steve Gerner, dean of students at Concordia, said the goal is to teach students how to manage stress on their own.

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"I don't think we can keep hiring counselors to solve the stress management," said Gerner. "I don't think we can do enough of it cause it's coming at such a high level."

Gerner said the SMART Lab helps prevent mental health issues like anxiety and depression.

"It doesn't replace counseling," said Gerner.

Concordia hired two part-time counselors this year. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee recently added three more counselors and additional positions are slated for next year. Marquette's counseling staff is slowly growing. Carthage College has also increased its counseling staff.

Kimberlie Goldsberry, dean of students at Carthage, thinks the need has to do with the stigma around mental health dwindling.

"It's a combination of students coming with already having had support from mental health and then students realizing that they need some support that maybe they never knew they might need," said Kimberlie Goldsberry. "One of the challenges has been helping students get to appropriate physical and mental health resources in the community."

Next semester students at Carthage will have the opportunity to get a free ride to counseling appointments off-campus.

"We continue to look to creative ways in which we can help to provide mental health support for our students," said Goldsberry.

The school has a new student-run group called 'Just Talk.' Sophomore Casey Aicher came up with the idea.

"There's a lot of people that are scared of therapy and of the pressure that some people think that therapy can bring you so I figured it might be a good idea to have something that's a little more relaxed more student-led," said Aicher.

Aicher said family trauma lead him to mental health issues.

"I've realized that a lot of people are in the same boat as me where they've gone through a bunch of stuff and they think that they're alone," he said.

The group is open to everyone. Aicher thinks other schools could benefit from creating groups like Just Talk.

"Meeting with other students, people your age, it can be a little more relatable and you can talk about stuff that you're all going through together," said Aicher.

Carthage is also training faculty and staff to recognize mental health issues. Milwaukee Area Technical College is doing the same kind of training for their school leaders.