UW Program Significantly Improved Students’ Mental Health



With the mental health crisis among college students and young adults spiking and campus counseling centers overwhelmed, psychologists from the University of Washington have developed a program that has significantly helped lower students’ stress levels and improved their emotional well-being. 

The program, called Be REAL, is a group-based, six-week program that primarily focuses on prevention. Once a week, students meet with a trained facilitator for 90 minutes. They meet in casual campus environments where everyone is comfortable, such as residence halls and classrooms, and go over mindfulness and coping techniques to help them better manage their emotions, cope with challenging situations and strengthen their self-awareness. 

Anxiety, stress and depression have always plagued college students, but things have gotten much worse amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At this point, 70 percent of college students report serious distress, and roughly 25 percent of young adults ages 18-24 have considered suicide within the past year.  

“There is this general sense that mental health services won’t be able to keep up with student demand,” said Robyn Long, an architect of Be REAL and director of community programs and training for UW’s Center for Child and Family Well-Being. “While Be REAL is never meant to replace mental health services, we wanted a prevention program that could support stress management and coping and give students these tools early on in their academic careers.”

Two studies on the Be REAL program demonstrate its promise as a model for supporting students’ mental health. The first study, published in Anxiety, Stress & Coping, covers the first year of the program, when it was offered during the 2017-2018 academic year primarily to freshman students living in UW residence halls. The second study, which was recently published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, covers the program during the 2019-2020 academic year, when it was provided by trained university staff in broader campus settings, including classes and student organizations. In both cases, students reported feeling improvements in their mental health and well-being that endured beyond the program’s completion. 

According to Long, the 90-minute sessions start with a mindfulness practice, such as a breathing practice, and then evolve into an open discussion on what skills students worked on or utilized over the past week. From there, the facilitator guides a discussion on a topic such as stress tolerance, emotion regulation, or radical acceptance. Then there might be small group discussions or short written exercises. Each session ends with another mindfulness practice related to the topics covered in class. After each class, students receive a newsletter that summarizes the topics covered and has links to audio practices and other resources. 

During the program’s inaugural year, 208 students signed up across the span of three academic quarters. Nearly 80 percent of students showed up to attend the majority of the sessions, and survey results suggested improvements in mindfulness and self-compassion, greater resilience and lower stress. The results held up when participants were surveyed again three months after completing the program. 

“It wasn’t a surprise. It was just really exciting to see that they continued to use these tools and continued to build on them,” said Long. 

In 2019, Long and colleges across UW decided to expand the program into other campus settings and train university staff, such as those working in recreation departments or those involved in student organizations, to administer the program. The idea was to reach more students by implementing the program in settings that they already are accustomed to going to. In total, 271 students enrolled in the second rendition of the program, many of whom are students of color. And once again, students reported significant increases in their mental well-being. 

Currently, the researchers are offering Be REAL to 100 university staff members across all three UW campuses. The idea is that they take the six-week course for their own personal well-being and become better positioned to facilitate the program for students who they mentor or teach. 

“There is not enough attention being given to the stress that universities’ staff face as well,” said Long. 

Currently, the Be REAL program is only being administered at UW, but the eventual goal is to expand the program as far as it will reach. 

However, Be REAL does offer audio recordings of guided mindfulness practices that are easily accessible for all. They can be accessed here. And according to UW’s Center for Child and Family Well-Being, those interested in bringing Be REAL to their students should contact Robyn Long. Her contact information is available here.

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