A new model for health, wellness and recreation at Syracuse
Just walking through the brand-new Barnes Center could make you feel better. The massive, multi-functional health, wellness and recreation facility at Syracuse University is all light, energy and strength—an epicenter of intermingling activities supporting university members of all needs and abilities in a myriad of ways.
Young people carrying rolled mats pass the ADA-compliant aquatic center on their way to the yoga studio which is next to the mindfulness spa.
The counseling center is close to the pharmacy and the health promotion office which just erected a “mental health awareness” exhibit in the lobby where kiosks will soon provide self-assessments for anyone who wants them.
It is hard to identify what members are doing here or what draws them in, other than to believe they are taking some action towards bettering their health and wellness. Turns out, this is by design.
“It used to be that if you needed counseling services, you had to walk down fraternity row to a yellow building at the edge of campus and everyone knew why you were going,” said Syracuse junior Mackenzie Anne Mertikas, who is the President of the schools’ Student Association.
“It’s hard enough to get the courage to go to counseling, let alone having to deal with that.”
The Barnes Center at The Arch is the school’s effort to change all that. It opened in September of 2019 and had over a hundred thousand visitors in its first month, indicating early success for its strategy to offer anonymity as well as convenience.
The Center now acts as the hub for recreation, health care, counseling and health promotion all in one enormous facility. It is a 228,000 square foot demonstration of the school’s commitment to student wellbeing.
If its health and wellness-related, the Barnes Center has it. It even has a state-of-the-art E-gaming center that gets gamers out of their rooms and interacting with each other.
Syracuse’s Senior Vice President for Enrollment and the Student Experience, Dolan Evanovich, says the Barnes Center was entirely student-driven.
“Our student leaders had been beating the drum on improving mental health services and, to their credit, they created a report about two years ago with information on how the university could serve them better,” he said. “That was the impetus for the Barnes Center.”
Evanovich sees the Center as part of Chancellor Kent Syverud’s larger effort to improve the student experience for all students, something he hopes becomes a Syracuse superlative.
“We’re attracting students that maybe a traditional recreation center or a traditional health center might not attract,” he said, noting that the e-gaming club now has 600 members compared to about 290 last year.
“When you combine all of these resources together, you have an opportunity to think holistically across the student body and bring more people into the tent.”
The fact that the Barnes Center has something for everyone takes on a slightly different meaning for Cory Wallack, PhD, the Center’s Executive Director. He sees the facility as a primary entry point for a variety of mental health service options matched to the acuity of the student coming through the door.
“For me, a lot of our work is about understanding how we can support mental health and wellness that’s not entirely therapist-dependent and then how we get the right people to the right therapist,” he said.
Wallack is utilizing what he calls a hybrid model of “stepped care” with the addition of “drop-in” counseling. Stepped care is described as “a system of delivering and monitoring mental health treatment so that the most effective, yet least resource intensive treatment, is delivered first, only “stepping up” to intensive/specialist services as required and depending on the level of patient distress or need.”
Wallack believes that using stepped care can help address what he sees as a problem across the board in student mental health – the idea that students of varying need are offered the same therapeutic model. Wallack, like his colleagues in counseling centers across the country, questions how much specialty work can be done in-house for students with very high needs.
At the other end of the spectrum, Wallack says he is uncomfortable with how many students are directed into therapy when they might need something less intensive.
“The data show that one third of the students that come into counseling only end up using one session, which is typically taken up by a traditional mental health intake. After 40 minutes of family history, the student may say, ‘I just really wanted to talk to someone about my breakup over the weekend,’” he said.
To meet the needs of these students, the Barnes Center offers drop-in appointments, which he describes as part therapy-in-the-moment and part triage. In helping students sort out problems, therapists recommend resources like the mindfulness spa located down the hall at the Barnes Center.
“The drop-in model is a point of entry. Once students come into the building, we can offer them a number of options right here,” he said. Those options range from meditation to recreation to education. The kiosk-based self-assessments in the lobby will direct students to resources based on how they respond.
Despite its ambition and promise, the evidence on the success of the Barnes Center will eventually come in the form of student outcomes.
Mertikas calls the Center “awesome”—if only one part of addressing student mental health at Syracuse. She has made mental health the Student Association’s priority issue for the school year with a particular focus on reducing stigma. She and her peers spent the early fall preparing for mental health awareness week, held in October, where students, particularly first-years, participated in a range of activities on campus with strong messages about seeking help and avoiding isolation.
“Before I came to Syracuse, I didn’t even think about my mental health,” she said. “And then you arrive on campus and you’re thrown into a million things and you’re worried about academics and what’s going on at home and how you’re going to deal with all that being away for the first time.”
Mertikas said she realized then that there must be many students who felt the same way. After finding help for herself, she made it her mission to make sure more students knew they were not alone.
“I thought there were probably so many people who didn’t even know that what they were going through could be helped by a lot of different resources on campus,” she said.
In that regard, Mertikas is excited about the Barnes Center and believes the de-stressing strategies like massage chairs, yoga and pet therapy can help, as can the drop-in counseling sessions. It is clear, though, she is worried that students are still not receiving the kind of counseling they are seeking from counselors who, she says, “understand where they’re coming from.”
“I think if you are having an ongoing issue and it’s something you’ve been struggling with for a while, we still don’t have as many solutions here as we need,” she said.
Like university leaders, she, too, believes finding a community on campus is fundamental to students’ mental health, as well as their overall relationship with the school.
“If you feel like you’re alone, then the chances of you staying here are a lot lower,” she said. “I think everyone needs to find their family—their group on campus—and the support systems and the resources that will make them happy while they’re here.”