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New wellness center empowers UMMC scholars to take care of mind, body

Published on Tuesday, September 20, 2016

You might think that, at 291 pages, the UMMC Student Bulletin, with its mile-long lists of classes, could not possibly have left anything out.

But it did: introduction to eating less pizza and more vegetables, the basics of getting more than four hours of sleep, and the fundamentals of staying connected to the people you love.

While those lessons could improve any student's chances of survival, many fail miserably.

“Students are experts at delayed gratification,” said Dr. Scott Rodgers, chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, “and that's not necessarily a good thing - they need to take care of their mind and body, their relationships; we need to help them take care of themselves.”

Looking for a way to fill that plot hole in the curriculum narrative, the department opened in August the Student Counseling & Wellness Center and brought in two mental health professionals to support students who could benefit from their services.

And there may be no shortage of those.

“We know from the literature that students from health professions experience a higher rate of depression, anxiety and even suicide compared to non-medical population in the same age group,” Rodgers said. “The hope is to avoid the stigma attached to mental health issues and allow students who are suffering to come in for assistance.”

Regarding formal mental health services at the Medical Center, Dr. Danny Burgess, associate professor of psychiatry, said the Student Counseling & Wellness Center offers something new: a physical place for students to go.

“It provides accessibility and convenience,” said Burgess, associate professor of psychiatry who will codirect the counseling center with Dr. Philip Merideth, professor of psychiatry.

Students can continue to turn to UMMC's Student and Employee Assistance Program, an outsourced call-in help line known as LifeSynch.

“That service is underutilized and probably undervalued,” Rodgers said. 

Dr. Jefferson Parker, associate professor of psychiatry and the department's vice chair of clinical affairs, organized the new counseling center, set up its website ( and recruited Burgess and Merideth.

“The earlier we have the chance to intervene, the better, instead of waiting until there's failure in the classroom, or a dissolving of relationships,” Parker said. “A lot of services are brief, three or four or six sessions in some cases will be all that's needed to get back on track.”

The sessions are free, although there will be a charge for such assistance as formalized testing, when needed. In all cases, privacy is a priority, Parker said.

“There is a firewall between us and what happens in the students' academic life. No one in this center will ever have a role in evaluating them as students.”

While enrollees from all six campus schools are invited to tap into the center, it opened Aug. 15 with what Rodgers calls a “soft rollout” for the School of Medicine, whose graduates have identified mental health services as an area in need of improvement.

“Medical students often don't get enough sleep. They may not practice healthy eating habits or get regular exercise,” said Dr. Jerry Clark, the school's chief student affairs officer and associate dean for student affairs. “Certainly, they have tremendous pressures related to time management and academic achievement. It's easy to see how stress or depression can take hold in a student's life.

“I'm so pleased to see the institution, through the Department of Psychiatry, committing key resources to combat this growing problem.”

The “resources” include the co-directors. Merideth, who is board-certified in adult, child and forensic psychiatry, will provide medication evaluation and management, while Burgess, recently a private-practice psychologist and a psychologist with Methodist Rehabilitation Center, will focus on psychotherapy.

“Being at UMMC is like coming home again,” said Merideth, the former chief medical officer for Brentwood Behavioral Healthcare in Flowood who completed his psychiatry residency at the Medical Center and is a former clinical assistant professor here.

“Seeing students will be an extension of the work I've been doing for years,” said Merideth, who also will serve as director of the Division of Child Psychiatry. “A student is in that phase of life that is an extended period of adolescence - that's the nature of being a student, because of the types of difficulties and issues they encounter.” 

Those include being away from home and dealing with a massive study load and the stress of exam schedules.

“Wellness is intentional,” Burgess said. “You need to develop strategies to cope.”

Having made it this far in their schooling, though, these high achievers are determined to complete their degrees and succeed - sometimes in spite of the cost to their personal lives. Rodgers has seen this firsthand, particularly with medical students.

“It's the white picket syndrome,” he said. “It's the image of being able to, one day, buy that house with the white picket fence, to have money in the bank and be able to start a family.

“So many of these students spend a decade of their lives putting their happiness on hold, sacrificing their 20s and early 30s.”

As acknowledged by the Association of American Medical Colleges, it's an issue faced by health professions schools and academic medical centers across the country. Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, encouraged and is supporting the creation of the center here, Rodgers said.

“The goal of the center is not to eliminate stress, but help students manage it,” he said. “If you take care of yourself, you can take better care of your patients. You need a reserve, and that reserve comes from wellness. The capacity to demonstrate empathy.

“I really hope we can go in that direction and, if so, this has a chance to blossom into something very meaningful.”

For more information:

The Student Counseling & Wellness Center is located in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior in room H-50A. Hours are 1-5 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and 8 a.m.-noon Wednesdays and Fridays. To make an appointment, call Ivory Stuckey at 5-1136.