Addressing increasing mental health related hospitalizations VSU cancels classes, encourages self-care

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PETERSBURG, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia State University gave its students and staff time for some “R&R”, a little rest and relaxation. VSU canceled classes on Tuesday to let students and staff focus on their mental health.

It’s the first of its kind at the university. While explaining why the day is necessary for students, administrators said an alarming number of students are already needing professional help with their mental health.

“Take that time for yourself. Wherever you land, there’s power in that,” a yoga instructor told her students during an outdoor class on-campus Tuesday. “Breathe in, and breathe out,” she said. That advice not only applies to just an hour on the yoga mat – but all day long as well.

“Often times we have to run from place to place or class to class. This day just allows us a time to reconnect,” said student government (SGA) president Kameron Gray, who said he started his day with meditation and planned on taking a yoga class in the afternoon.

SGA played a role in making the day possible for the campus community. Gray said VSU students had asked for a day to just relax.

Campus was nearly deserted Tuesday. Staff and students were told to sleep in, dress down, get some exercise, reconnect with colleagues if they’d like and just take care of themselves.

“It feels good to know that the school cares about you first and not only your academics,” freshman Denver Francis McKenzie told 8News Tuesday.

Free yoga, massages, and muscle-relaxation classes were also offered to students throughout the day.

“What we know from research is that how well they do academically is definitely correlated with their mental wellness,” said Cynthia Ellison, who runs VSU’s health and wellness program. “If you are not healthy, it’s hard for you to do anything else or focus on anything else.”

Ellison said so far this fall, at least eight students have been hospitalized for mental health reasons.

“We’re four weeks into the term and we’re seeing these kinds of numbers,” Ellison said.

She said when compared to past years, the number of students seeking help with managing their mental health is increasing. Hospitalized students are also staying in mental health facilities for longer periods of time, according to Ellison.

Administrators like Vice President for Academic Affairs & Provost Donald Palm said the continuing pandemic is largely to blame with students returning to demanding classes in-person while still trying to mitigate virus spread.

“All universities are seeing this. How do you address that holistically? This is really the start of addressing it holistically. Sometimes you just have to take a break,” Palm said.

Ellison said other colleges and universities should follow in VSU’s footsteps.

“I think that universities should take it seriously. Why? Because universities have metrics that we are all evaluated by: retention, persistence, and graduation rate,” she said. “If you want to positively impact those numbers then one way to do it is to make sure your students are whole: mind, body and soul.”

VSU’s COVID-19 positivity rate is at one percent right now, far below the current state average of about 9 percent.

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