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Prioritizing student mental health

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PA program prioritizes student mental health

By Holly Daniel, PA Class of 2019

Drinking water from a fire hydrant. Being baptized by fire. Jumping straight into the deep end. Pick your cliché; any one of them is an apt way to describe the process of becoming a physician assistant, regardless of what school you’ve chosen.

At the beginning of PA school, things feel like any normal college curriculum. However, within a few days you find yourself wondering how you are studying 1,347 slides for a 50-question exam! Time is always in short supply; you have less time to communicate with friends and family, less time to do the things that you love. However, life carries on, and your busyness begins to take a toll on the people and relationships you once held paramount.

When I was considering PA school, I heard a statement that almost dissuaded me: “If you are married or in a relationship, expect to be single by the completion of the program.” This was a bit hard to swallow. I remember asking myself: “If this is what PA school is, do I really want to do it?”

With these pressures in mind, Florida State University has taken an honest and practical approach. For the inaugural class of its PA program, FSU made special resources available to aid the students. It learned from other programs and paid particular attention to student care. Many schools assume their students are superhuman studying machines, but FSU’s PA program recognizes that all of us hit our mental or physical limits from time to time. It offers on-site counseling and mental health services to every student. It has a dedicated psychologist who meets regularly with all students.

The first week of PA school is a roller coaster of emotions, and the on-site psychologist helped smooth the transition considerably. She didn’t wait for us to engage her; instead, she hosted a lunch-and-learn and presented tools to help us manage our time and balance our lives outside of school, and acquainted us with the study habits that have fundamental research support for success. Afterward, we met individually to discuss how to improve exam performance and test-taking skills.

The care offered by the class psychologist goes beyond just assistance in meeting academic goals; she offers more conventional counseling services that deal with stress, general anxiety, crisis intervention, depression, even family and relationship issues. Many people in the program, including me, have struggled to cope with outside stress in addition to the rigorous academic curriculum.

When you’re not in PA school and have to deal with a crisis or personal struggles, you have more time to devote to solving the problem or helping your family. Having too little time to process and cope with an issue can lead to devastating results. Because time is at such a premium in PA school, having counseling services within the same building allows us to take full advantage of any available free time and address and hopefully resolve issues. Of course, not every issue is life-or-death, but as a stressed-out PA student, sometimes it’s just nice to vent.

People in the college’s Office of Student Counseling also observe our schedules, targeting the times we’re most likely to experience more stress. For instance, before final exams last semester they promoted Wellness Week, which included massages, yoga, labyrinth tours, mini boot camps and a cardio session.

In addition to the class psychologist and our support from the Office of Student Counseling, FSU also employs a student support coordinator. Working in collaboration with the dean of student affairs, she maintains a student-centered environment, while ensuring our concerns and voices are heard. The doors to the student support coordinator’s office are always open. She helps lift our spirits in times of struggle and cheers us on in our success.

Before I started this program, I was apprehensive about facing the challenges. But FSU’s groundbreaking approach to mental health, student care and overall wellbeing has been impressive. I’m relieved that I’m part of such a supportive environment, and that my PA program recognizes the importance of mental health to overall academic success. I hope it’s the beginning of a trend in modern higher education.


This article was originally published at and is reprinted here with permission.