MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – On Friday, April 23, West Virginia University President Gordon Gee addressed the Board of Governors and took the opportunity to talk about the challenges the pandemic created and amplified, most critically, mental health.
His address came exactly a week after 20-year-old WVU student Benjamin Pravecek took his own life.
“Ben losing his life was a real tragedy and it had a real impact on campus,” Gee said. “This tragedy had a personal impact on me because it is just one of the things that is not understandable. But we have to deal with the issues.”
Gee said the university is facing “a number of pandemics” that are heavily weighing on the mental health of students, faculty and staff. The longest and most impactful, he said, was the COVID-19 pandemic.
These mental health issues are important. At a very, very fundamental level for the institution. So, what are we doing? We have the Carruth Center, which is very critical to dealing with student mental health issues. As students are concerned that they are not getting enough access, we have, even before the pandemic, we’ve increased our commitment to Carruth and to hiring new people. And obviously, I check on regularly Dr. T. Anne Hawkins who is the leader of Carruth.Gordon Gee – University President
In his conversations with the Carruth Center and the wider University population, Gee said he has come to understand that tackling current and future mental health crises will be a long-term battle.
However, it’s an endeavor Gee said he is willing to undertake.
“I personally care very deeply about these issues,” he said. “I think that they’re incredibly important. I always say that to every student, I’m kind of like a grandfather here. Every student is my grandson or granddaughter.”
WVU’s President said he feels the same type of closeness to faculty and staff. That is why he and the rest of the administration are working “expeditiously” to help them overcome their mental health challenges.
One way that they hope to help is through the creation of Healthy Minds University in the fall of 2021.
“It’s a collaboration between the Carruth Center and our other support services,” Gee said. “Remember, we do have a large, significant, world-class medical center on this campus, so we’re going to put all of our resources together to create this kind of response to the moment. The clinic will be dedicated to providing a full spectrum of mental health care to our students. And obviously, we’re concerned about our faculty and staff.”
Gee also addressed other causes of mental health distress, including the issues of racial justice and social disruption.
He specifically spoke about the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent conviction of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, spotlighting that situation as just one of many instances of racial unrest that can weigh on the mental health of the WVU community.
Addressing issues such as inequality, race and class can be difficult, but the pandemic has brought them out of the shadows and made them almost impossible to ignore. Gee said while these topics are uncomfortable to discuss, let alone confront, WVU still must step up to the challenge.
A website, launched in late March with resources and ways to engage feedback and suggestions for this ongoing initiative. That is just one of many steps WVU is taking, including trying to create more diverse classrooms and university.
As a whole, the University must engage in actions and conversations that allow everyone to “feel that they are individuals of worth and that they can achieve”.
“Hopefully, that is the way that we will impact society,” Gee said. “But it is an enormous issue.”
At the end of the day, WVU’s President said, the University is committed to meeting the mental health challenges and addressing whatever the causes may be in the moment and the future.
“I think that as a university, we care deeply about the problem and we care equally deeply about finding the right solution,” Gee said. “And we want to make sure that we are transparent and partnering with our students, with our faculty, staff. Because I think the transparency about both the things that we are doing and the things that we haven’t done that we need to identify, the things that students need to have and also that students need to respond to in terms of what we’re talking about. So, it’s a conversation that is powerful and ongoing.”