While University of Minnesota leaders continue taking steps to combat mental health issues on campus, some students say physical education could offer a short-term solution.
The Minnesota Student Association is urging University officials to offer more physical education courses and promote them as stress relievers in response to ongoing concerns about students’ mental well-being.
MSA sent out a petition Tuesday requesting that advisers encourage students to work physical education courses into heavy course loads and that the University adds more sections of popular gym classes that fill up early, such as swimming and weight training.
From 2004 to 2013, there was a 65 percent increase in student visits to the Boynton Health Service’s mental health clinic, jumping from about 2,000 visits to 3,400 visits in that time span.
“One of these fixes, these tweaks that we can make [to alleviate mental health issues] is making physical education classes more accessible,” MSA President Joelle Stangler said.
MSA also asked the University to spread its physical education classes throughout the day because just a few of the courses are offered at night, according to the petition.
Kinesiology senior Nhu Richards said she supports the petition, noting that she hasn’t been able to sign up for physical education classes because they aren’t offered at times that fit with her school schedule.
Since the University Recreation and Wellness Center opens at 5:45 a.m. and physical education courses don’t begin until 8 a.m., Richards said the University should fill the time gap with early-morning gym classes.
“I make it a priority every single morning to make it to the gym, and I think it sets me up for a better day,” she said.
Developmental and behavioral pediatrician Dr. Andy Barnes, who specializes in mental health services, said any aerobic exercise is beneficial for reducing stress.
Exercise increases blood flow in the brain, he said, which in turn helps with learning, memory and stress relief.
Increasing the number of physical education classes was one suggestion that students, faculty and staff made at a May 19 mental health forum held by the Provost’s Committee on Student Mental Health.
Other ideas at the forum included an undergraduate requirement for a mental health course or required training for faculty and staff members to learn how to help students struggling with mental health issues. Some suggested creating an office or website, similar to One Stop, specifically for mental health services.
Boynton Health Service Chief Medical Officer and Provost Committee member Dr. Gary Christenson said a wellness program with incentives, like an insurance deductible or a one-time tuition reduction, could encourage student mental health awareness.
In upcoming weeks, Christenson said the committee will discuss ideas from the forum to prioritize before seeking administrative support.
“We’re in an evaluation and strategizing stage right now,” he said.
Meanwhile, the University has already made some strides in combating mental health, Christenson said.
In September, the University opened a mental health clinic on the St. Paul campus, which Christenson said eliminated the wait-list for students seeking care.
The University also started a “Pet Away Worries and Stress” program in November where students can relieve stress by interacting with therapy animals.
Christenson said he commends MSA for taking its own actions to help the University fix the problem.
“Here’s an example of how this process kind of stimulates the discussion … to addressing all aspects of wellness to improve people’s mental health,” he said.