How ACU is working to ensure mental health and well-being

With ACU’s rise to a research level three institution in the Carnegie Institute rankings and competing in their first year of the Western Athletic Conference, Abilene Christian University’s name is well-known across the country. The standard of excellence set at ACU has raised the importance of mental health on campus.

Seven departments, 79 undergraduate degrees, over 164 areas of study, 26 graduate degrees, seven doctoral degrees, over 100 student organizations, and more than 135 college departments and services combined all serving 5,334 students, creating a sense of urgency to maintain the standard at ACU.

Many faculty and staff work 40-50 hour weeks to ensure the continued success of ACU but their mental health is starting to become a larger priority within the university. ACU’s rapid rise from a Div. II to a Div. I university in the past decade has led to different mental health initiatives being run by the university to help prevent burnout across campus.

“Anyone who’s in a situation where they feel it’s necessary to work significant amounts of overtime to fulfill the responsibilities of their job that warrants some level of conversation with their supervisor,” President Dr. Phil Schubert said. “They have to try to discern if it’s something that needs broader attention to try to provide some type of relief which would certainly be appropriate.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education has written about mental health over a dozen times in the past year. In their article headlined “How to Make Mental Health a Top Priority This Fall and Beyond,” Mays Imad, a professor of pathophysiology and bioethics at Pima Community College, recommends five steps to a more proactive approach to mental health for higher education.

The steps are, “First, do a self-study. Start your holistic approach with new students. Organize additional mental-health events throughout the year. Invite faculty members to offer a first-year seminar on learning, emotions, trauma, and healing. Hold a campuswide mental-health symposium every month.”

One of the mental health initiatives that ACU has implemented is the Family First Initiative. This initiative was founded by Heidi Morris who had a goal of promoting healthy relationships on campus. Morris created a vision that is dedicated to providing resources to help promote healthy and Christ-centered relationships in the lives of all ACU employees and families. As well as Family First, Morris is an associate professor in Marriage and Family Studies and has her own private counseling practice outside of ACU.

“I find that ACU is an environment where you can be real and find support,” Morris said. “That’s one of the stereotypes around mental health is that it’s left people feeling isolated and not always being able to share. Whether mental health needs have to be addressed or just ways you need to take care of yourself and I appreciate that environment around ACU.”

Morris said her department makes her feel very supported as well and that her busy-ness comes in seasons. The Department of Marriage and Family Studies also offers a Marriage and Family Institute which serves in a 100 mile radius of the Big Country. Graduate students work as interns and receive supervised clinical hours. Morris said ACU’s very fortunate to be where they are in terms of mental health but has advice for students.

“I would say, especially for students, is being really careful about the things that can sometimes trigger mental health troubles,” Morris said. “I especially see this in a college population by poorly managing stress by overcommitting, being run down, not sleeping well, and not eating well. Creating habits even in college that will lend itself to healthy mental health is important.”

Another faculty member who works to implement mental health into his role at ACU is Cyrus Eaton, the Dean of Spiritual Formation at ACU. Eaton came from Lipscomb as the Men’s Campus Minister and Director of Mentoring. He said he’s found that he’s been able to maintain a healthy work-life balance since coming to ACU.

“I think it’s truer the longer you’ve been here that it’s easier to notice that those boundaries that you established five to ten years prior have slowly started to disappear,” Eaton said. “Then you’ve found yourself totally consumed and owned by your job. I absolutely believe it happens at ACU.”

Cyrus and the Office of Spiritual Formation have been doing Let’s Talk events where attendees discuss important topics that aren’t typically discussed in regular chapel meetings. Several of the events have been focused on mental health.

“We think that mental health is a deeply important conversation that needs to be understood through the lens of the lens of faith and spirituality but also the lens of Jesus,” Eaton said. “The most important convos don’t always happen in Moody because we only get 15-20 min to talk about it and you just need more time. It’s not that we don’t address them in those spaces but it’s that we don’t address them as often because of the nature of that space.”

Eaton’s previous institution, Lipscomb, offers a Student Care Coordination team that is similar to SOAR at ACU. The SCC was created three years ago and was modeled after SOAR and other programs around the country. However, their team offers a Student Care Emergency Fund designed to help students in an emergency situation. Lipscomb also offers free counseling services as well as a partnership with Swipe Out Hunger. Lipscomb started their partnership with the program last year and their mission is to partner with college campuses nationwide to solve student hunger. Sarah McCormack is one of the Student Care Coordinators at Lipscomb who helps meet the needs of the students she serves.

“The more we can be supporting students from all angles, the better,” McCormack said. “Any program that we can bring to support a student more holistically I think is always the best thing to do. We have to come together as a community to support each other better.”

Other Church of Christ institutions like Lipscomb and Harding offering free counseling services, ACU recently upped their prices to $35 a session. In the Medical Care and Counseling Center at ACU, there are seven staff. At Harding, they have 12 dedicated to their counseling center. Tyson Alexander is the director of the MACCC at ACU and has his own private practice as well.

“We never want the price point to be a barrier,” Alexander told the Optimist back in Feb. “The new price point is there but if students have a hard time paying it the MACCC gives them the option to tell the center about it and receive a waived fee for a lower price point.”

At ACU, Wendy Jones oversees all the human resources needs. She works as the Chief Human Resources Officer, Title IX Coordinator, and serves on the Senior Leadership Team. Jones has been at ACU since 1999 and said she has worked hard to cultivate a healthy work-life balance.

“There’s some areas that we are really struggling to keep employees,” Jones said. “Working to pay wages and create an environment where they can stay because it’s really hard when they’re not talking about leaving for a dollar more an hour but multiple dollars an hour. That’s significant and that’s hard.”

ACU has more than 40 job openings at the Abilene and Dallas campuses, putting a strain on existing employees. The job market has fluctuated drastically since COVID with some schools like Lipscomb having over 130 job openings. Other private Christian universities like Harding have 13 openings and Pepperdine have 83. Jones said that this is usually the time of year where openings are highest.

“I have to think about what drains me and what brings me life,” Jones said. “I don’t know that some people have had the space to have those conversations. I tell my staff that we’re all going to have to do things at work that we don’t like to do but hopefully we get to do a lot of things we do like to do.”

Schubert said he believes that it’s his job as the President to make sure that the mental health and wellbeing of faculty and staff at ACU is cared for. Schubert said he believes ACU will continue to remain grounded in Christian roots and be a campus that is a safe space for students to receive the help they need.

“It’s incredibly important for all of us to be champions of mental health,” Schubert said. “I don’t think we’ll ever be our best for all the different things we want to give ourselves to. How we give ourselves to God and his plan from him and to others, we’ll never be able to do that most effectively if we’re not tending to and stewarding our own mental health. We want to be the kind of community where that is open and expected.”

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