Dr. Stuart J. Savin speaks on mental health awareness, initiatives in education

By Lydia Wolfe || Contributing Writer

Photo by Rachel Gerb

This week’s Common Hour, entitled “Student Mental Health Across the Educational Continuum: Challenges and Opportunities,” was given by Stuart J. Slavin, M.D., M. Ed., the Associate Dean for Curriculum and Professor of Pediatrics at the St. Louis University School of Medicine (SLU). This Common Hour discussed the widespread issue of school-related stress and mental illness and was proposed by Professor Rick Moog of the Chemistry Department.

Before settling in St. Louis, Dr. Slavin worked at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). At UCLA and SLU, Slavin was a leader in initiating curriculum innovations, specifically in improving the mental health of medical students. Dr. Slavin was the recipient of the 2013 Alpha Omega Alpha Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teacher Award from the Association of American Medical Colleges, in addition to being the recipient of numerous teaching awards for his work at UCLA and SLU.

Dr. Slavin began his Common Hour lecture by providing some staggering statistics regarding mental health and medical students. He noted that between 20-30% of medical students in the U.S. are depressed, with anxiety and burnout rates greater than 50%. These rates only increased as the students progressed further in their academics and professions, with between 60-75% of students in medical residency experiencing burnout. Practicing physicians experience even higher rates and most say that they would not recommend the profession to their children. But, as Slavin made clear, “these experiences are not particular to medical students,” and are relevant to all types of students.

While observing students at the St. Louis Medical School, Slavin noted that the students seemed happy and had reported high level satisfactions, so he was shocked to discover that students suffered from high rates of depression and anxiety. Comparing this to the much lower rates of depression and anxiety reported by students before coming to SLU, he came to the worrying conclusion that “the clear message is that we’re doing this to them.” Slavin noted how this crisis has been studied for years but not enough was being done to address it.

Dr. Slavin then decided to take action, creating a model using his medical students. He began to explore what could be done to reduce unnecessary stressors in the learning environment. His solution had two main aspects: help students find quick and easy ways to deal with stress and help them find meaning in their work. At SLU this model has been implemented over the last seven years, with new improvements being added each year. For example, resilience and mindfulness courses were added to the curriculum, changes were made to the current pass/fail grading system, and, most recently, the school introduced a confidential tracking system for depression and anxiety to help students who had these conditions or were at risk for them. For the first time ever, in 2015-2016, first and second year medical school students recorded lower rates of depression and anxiety than when they entered the school. Slavin joked, “medical school is now theraputic for mental health.” But as he says, St. Louis Medical School was able to “fundamentally create a different experience for medical students than is offered anywhere else in the country” by providing students with a learning experience that not only recognizes, but makes real efforts, to combat mental health issues. This change was relatively easy to implement and its benefits are immense. Students at SLU are spending less time on homework, but have seen an increase in exam scores, with failure rates half that of the national average.

Slavin connected his experience working with medical students to students as a whole. He expressed the need to focus on mindfulness and articulated how this can be cultivated through informal practice throughout the day by performing simple tasks such as taking time to focus on one sensation and letting everything else drift away.

He detailed a few other processes such as cognitive restructuring, emphasizing that “the only way you can really change outcome is to change your emotional reaction” to adverse events, and how it is important to not “have blinders on to only see the negative.”

Slavin emphasized the importance of investing in one’s well-being, and not just academic performance. The view that any time spent away from studying will hurt academic performance is not only inaccurate, but is harmful. Academic performance cannot reach its true potential without mental and physical well-being being a priority. Slavin discussed the role that administrators and professors have in student mental health, expressing the need for faculty development in regards to understanding and addressing mental health issues, stating that, “students tend to be quite skilled at hiding their pain and appearing strong,” but that does not mean that they do not need support. He cited the need for all faculty staff to be held accountable for dealing with mental health issues, rather than just directing the problems to a specific wellness staff member.

He ended his talk with a quote from Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, and concentration camp survivor. Frankl said, “There is nothing in the world that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life.” Slavin encouraged audience members to find their meaning and work towards it, noting the important role of educators in both helping students discover that meaning and in combating school-triggered mental illnesses.

First year Lydia Wolfe is a contributing writer. Her email is lwolfe1@fandm.edu.

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