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January 8, 2015

Efforts target mental wellness

Lunchtime workshops on reducing stress and its health effects, along with new online resources, are the first efforts of Pitt’s mental wellness task force, formed by the University Senate’s benefits and welfare committee last term.

Notes Linda Tashbook, international law librarian at the Barco Law Library in the School of Law, who formed the task force after joining the committee a year ago: “There just seem to be so many coworkers in the faculty and staff who have a relative they are helping out.”

That includes herself, she says. Tashbook gets calls out of the blue; sometimes her relative just needs to vent, but other times a hospital trip is needed. “It really affects me,” she says, from her time management to simply learning to cope.

And there is always the worry, she adds: “Is this the time the suicide attempt works?”

Depression is the fourth most prevalent chronic illness among Pitt employees, says John Kozar, assistant vice chancellor for Human Resources, whose department is hosting the task force’s website and helping to facilitate the seminars. “So the need exists to provide these types of services based upon the high prevalence of what we see,” he says.

The task force’s website will be a guide for faculty and staff to connect with the variety of resources that exist on campus to help family members. Tashbook hopes Pitt faculty and staff will notify the task force of other resources that should be added. “We hope to make that into something more” comprehensive, she says. Plus, she hopes the website and workshops will connect people on campus who are facing similar issues in their families, from criminal law concerns to housing problems. “We become resources for each other,” she says. Tashbook, for example, participates in the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, so she can connect fellow Pitt employees to family-to-family classes and support groups.

The task force’s efforts will supplement what already is offered by UPMC Health Plan’s LifeSolutions program, the individual counselors available through UPMC Behavioral Health and HR’s current website with aids for mental wellness ( “The topic of stress can apply to all,” Kozar says. “I sure don’t know anyone … who doesn’t feel some certain level of stress during their day.”


For the first series of lunch-time seminars, the task force has recruited Bruce S. Rabin to review what stress does to the brain and how to prevent its negative effects on our health. Tashbook chose Rabin — professor of pathology and psychiatry and medical director of the Division of Clinical Immunopathology — for more than just for his expertise. “He makes everybody feel good,” she says. “He is so phenomenal and authoritative.”

Says Rabin: “We will take the faculty and staff on a journey” to understand how stress responses alter the quality of health, and educate them “so their brain will become less responsive to stress. The goal is to help people stay healthy as they go through the aging process.

“Stay healthy, get older and die quickly — that’s the blessing,” he says, rather than potentially suffering from a chronic, stress-influenced illness that eventually causes death.

The 50-minute seminars — in the William Pitt Union Kurtzman Room beginning at noon on Jan. 21, Feb. 11 and March 4 — will make attendees aware of exactly how stress increases our risk of mental and physical diseases and teach behaviors and techniques that decrease stress’s effects.

Who ought to attend? Those who are healthy and want to decrease their risk of being affected by stress, Rabin says, and those already suffering from such diseases as fibromyalgia, hypertension, ulcerative colitis or multiple sclerosis, who want to learn how to reduce the severity of their symptoms and the frequency of relapse.

“The things that people learn, they will be able to share with their families,” he says. Attendees will learn how to create a healthier environment in which to raise children, for instance, so the sessions will be helpful for any parent or grandparent.

Seminar materials also will be posted on the Human Resources website and at

—Marty Levine

Filed under: Feature,Volume 47 Issue 9