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University gives students two days off to play with puppies, color, ride tricycles

ANALYSIS: Eastern Illinois University hosts mental health festival as never-ending pandemic grates students. But how effective is such treatment for long-term solutions?

Students at one public university in Charleston, Illinois, recently received two full days off from reading, writing and arithmetic to focus on the other “Rs” of life — rest and relaxation.

For two days in mid-November, college students at Eastern Illinois University did not have to fret about going to class or turning in homework.

Instead they got to pass their time on campus playing out in the sun and fresh air, racing trikes with friends, frolicking with therapy puppies, coloring, and enjoying many additional activities as part of the school’s “Mental Health Days.”

Later, after tuckering themselves out, they could then park their big-kid three-wheelers, sit down, and, as the university’s website notes, enjoy “Games, Lego and relaxation over a tasty bowl of coldness” at their school’s “I Scream for Ice Cream” station, chock full of “a variety of deliciously superfluous toppings.”

Journaling, sewing, meditating and enjoying the hygienic powers of lavender were all bonus options for the kiddos.

They could also choose to attend several seminars on topics like healing and hope, according to the jam-packed schedule of events for Tuesday, Nov. 16 and Wednesday, Nov. 17.

“Accessing our internal power to engage in the process of becoming and/or remembering our wholeness may be part of healing,” read the description for the healing-focused “Living Room Conversation.”

“Hope is an energy source that resides in each of us. It is a type of knowing beyond the five senses of touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste,” informed the blurb for the hope discussion.

And, if all this wasn’t enough, when the sun went down, these kids could enjoy jazz, bowling, and “Diversi-Tea,” a special event at which they were served “Tea and a range of international sweets and treats” (hopefully without too much cultural appropriation).

The stated rational for the mental health festival was that campus leaders recognized that mental health issues had increased on their campus and within the broader community, that the lingering COVID pandemic was making things worse, and that there was a general recognition that this was an especially difficult semester for everyone at EIU.

“We recognize that mental health issues have increased on our campus and the broader community similar to other universities across the country,” administrators explained in announcing the line-up. “These issues have undoubtedly been exacerbated by the lingering pandemic which continues to create uncertainty and stress for our students.”

In fairness, there were also more serious discussions held for faculty and students about mental health and suicide prevention.

Reports, both nationally and internationally, suggest that young people are struggling with mental health right now, likely at greater rates than other age groups.

In the United States, this has been reported by the CDC. Across the pond, Lucy Johnston, the health and social affairs editor for the Sunday Express, recently conceptualized the problem in the UK as the number of young people with new or worsening mental health issues in her country as being able to fill 18 Wembley Stadiums.

A study conducted by researchers at Texas A&M delved deeper into specific elements of the pandemic-era that may be contributing to the erosion of student mental health.

They found large percentages of students reporting concerns over adjusting to online classes, social isolation, uncertainty about the future, and an array of self-reported symptoms characteristic of depression and anxiety.

The extent to which playing with therapy dogs, coloring, or other such activities can, however, address these problems seems minimal — as data suggest even if engaging in these activities may temporarily allay self-reported stress or anxiety, they tend to fail as long-term treatments or at yielding lasting results.

Although EIU’s festival may have been fun, it likely accomplished little more than helping university officials accrue a little good will and positive press through an ostentatious display of mental health theater.

MORE: University COVID policies exacerbate college students’ mental health struggles

IMAGE: EIU Facebook screenshot

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Daniel Nuccio holds master's degrees in both psychology and biology. He is currently pursuing his doctorate in biology at Northern Illinois University where he is studying the impact of social isolation on host-microbe interactions and learning new coding techniques to integrate into his research.