Webinar explores paths to mental, emotional well-being


When a friend or associate at work or school greets you with “Hi, how are you doing?” virtually everyone has responded enthusiastically — regardless if they’re struggling just to get through the day — with “fine,” “well” or even “great!”

“I recognize that that’s a pleasantry,” noted Bernadette Smith, assistant director of outreach in Pitt’s University Counseling Center. “And I think that it’s become shorthand for us to say ‘Hello, how’s it going? I’m good. How are you?’ and we try to do this ‘check-in.’”

Making such common exchanges more meaningful — and beneficial from a faculty member-to-student or colleague-to-colleague standpoint — takes time as well as interest and engagement in the people we encounter on a regular basis, particularly students.

“If I knew that (a colleague) was working on a project last night, I might say, ‘How are you today? How are things going with that project?’ ” Smith explained. “If I’m wanting to kind of build those relationships, strengthen them and get a sense of how someone’s doing, it’s gonna take a little bit of work on my part.”

Smith offered such insights during the "Flourish at Pitt – Promoting Emotional Well-Being" webinar on July 20. Part of Pitt’s Mentoring and Advising workshop series, the virtual forum served as an unofficial kickoff to Pitt’s “Year of Emotional Well-Being” for the 2022-23 academic year.

Smith presented the webinar with her colleague Ahmed Ghuman, the counseling center’s associate director of strategic programs and services. The workshop explored ways for Pitt community advisors and mentors to enhance their knowledge and skills in supporting students’ emotional well-being, promote human flourishing and how to support students experiencing mental health concerns and crises.

Approximately 86 people took part by listening, submitting questions or both, noted April Belback, Pitt’s director of undergraduate advising and mentoring. “(Ghuman and Smith) did a version of this session at our mentoring and advising summit, and it was highly successful as you can imagine, so we asked them to come back and do another version of it for us today,” Belback said. “And as you can see, with all the attendees, it’s well needed and a discussion that’s really, really important for our students, and our staff and faculty alike.”

Well-being in higher ed

Ghuman started the presentation by noting the connection — drawn from Gallup polling data — between readily available emotional support and students’ overall success in college and their ability to “flourish” thereafter.

“Graduates who are emotionally supported during college or who had a mentor or someone who encouraged their hopes and dreams and cared about their experience there (are) three times as likely to report that they’re thriving and flourishing and having a positive experience after college,” he said. “And they’re six times as likely to be attached to their alma mater, and that’s really meaningful and helpful feedback from Gallup.”

The top three of five factors students reported as affecting their academic performance include depression, anxiety and stress. “That aligns with what we see,” Ghuman said. “Anxiety is the top-rated concern that students present within college counseling centers across the country, and we certainly see it here as well.”

The research further shows a negative correlation between mental health-related concerns, grade point averages and student retention. “So typically, when students have mental-health related concerns, it does impact their GPA negatively,” he said, adding that mental health struggles account for 3 to 5 percent of college students who withdraw from school. “And that’s really important … that when you’re working with students who might be struggling to make sure they’re getting connected to (Pitt counseling) so we can provide them that support.”

At the other end of the spectrum, higher levels of well-being generally lead to better performance at school and work, healthier and more satisfying relationships, better overall health and sleep, and less stress. “When you have higher levels of well-being, you have a better immunity, better physical health, tend to live longer and (experience) less heart disease and fewer sleep problems,” Ghuman said.

Shaping happiness

Despite the increasing challenges to maintaining well-being amidst a modern technologically based campus, Ghuman offered some relatively optimistic news. While about 50 percent of our “happiness” is pre-determined through genetics, and about 10 percent comes from material-related choices, we have a good chunk left to our own determination.

“The good news is, in any given moment, we can all have direct control over 40 percent of our happiness, and those are the intentional activities we do,” he said. “It’s just being mindful in the moment … it’s the little (and) day-to-day things we do. Those are the things that actually contribute significantly to our overall happiness and well-being, and we have direct control over as well.”

Ghuman shared the PERMA model, which stands for positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishments, as a go-to guide for well-being-related goals. Some key elements of the model include engaging in:

  • Mindfulness, or being fully engaged in any given moment or activity.

  • “Having fun” by engaging with favorite hobbies, listening to music, watching movies, etc.

  • Gratitude, compassion and forgiveness.

  • Playing with children, pets, friends and family members.

  • Physical activities: walking, running, biking, skiing, sports.

  • Calming activities: yoga, meditation, time in nature, reading, listening to music.

“One is spending time with people that you care about, the people that nourish or bring you joy, that fill your brain,” Ghuman observed. “We all know people in our lives that drain us, that can be toxic. We don’t want to spend as much time with them, and sometimes that’s not possible because they might be close to us, but you want to try to spend time with people that nourish you and make you feel good.”

Spotting distress

In the webinar’s second half, Bernadette Smith focused on how faculty, staff and others can identify and support students in distress. Noticing a change in a student’s thought process, emotions, behaviors and presentations can indicate the presence of stress or challenges, particularly if the changes occur frequently.

“Somebody maybe stops by and says hello to you every day on the way to their office as they’ve passed yours,” she explained. “And one day you see them walk by and they don’t say anything, right? So, if we only see that one time, is that a great concern? Maybe, but we might want to be paying attention to see if that happens again. Is this change lasting a really long time, or has this person been able to go back to baseline relatively quickly?”

Other “baseline changes” to look for, particularly if persistent, include:

  • Excessive cheerfulness

  • Sudden decline in academic performance, not turning in assignments

  • Disruptive classroom behaviors: inconsistent attendance, frequent lateness

  • Difficulty focusing and paying attention, excessive procrastination

  • Isolation and withdrawal from social situations

Smith said the first step after determining a student is truly struggling is to start a conversation, either in person, text or email depending on how you most often interact with them.

“These don’t have to be heavy conversations,” she noted. “You know, I think about when we check in with family members or our friends, our peers, if we notice something and we kind of check in and say ‘Hey, how are you? How are you doing?’

“And we really want to make sure that we’re avoiding judgments, any assumptions,” Smith added. “We really want to stick to the facts of what we’ve noticed. ‘So you’ve been really busy lately. Can you tell me how things are going? How are you managing that?’ Or ‘I haven’t seen you for two weeks, and I usually see every day. Is everything going OK?’ ”

Present and attentive

Once that conversation or dialog with a student has begun, Smith suggested putting away your phone, closing your email and clearly directing your attention to the student, being mindful not to interrupt, allowing for thoughtful silence and asking to repeat information for clarity and understanding.

“It can go a long way,” Smith said, “because it can make someone feel like ‘Hey, they’re really trying to listen.’ Empathy is really, really important here. And validation, it can be really, really meaningful, something small like ‘That sounds really tough.’ ‘Sounds like there’s a lot going on.’ Or ‘I know how frustrating that can be for someone.’”

The ability to help students in distress, Ghuman emphasized, starts with connection and relationship-building. “That’s why it’s so important to build those relationships, because nobody’s going to really tell you how they’re doing unless they feel safe with you,” he said. “I think once you have those relationships, people are more willing to share how they’re actually really doing.”

Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at shannonw@pitt.edu.


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