Pediatrics Researcher Introduces Wellness, Resilience Course to Undergraduates

Carla Chugani in a red and blue patterned blouse Carla Chugani was a college counselor before getting her PhD, doing postdoc work at Pitt and then transitioning into her current role as an assistant professor in pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh.

During her time as college counselor, she noticed an increase in students with anxiety and depression.

“Even though our counseling center worked incredibly hard, we couldn't keep up with all of the students who wanted treatment and often had a waitlist,” said Chugani.

These problems become even more urgent when students experience severe or ongoing mental health issues, including suicidal ideation. A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states the suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 increased by about 56% between 2007 and 2017.

“This is a very common problem around the country for college counseling centers. It’s also a complex issue, because college counseling centers aren't necessarily set up to do long-term or intensive treatment, but they are put in a very difficult spot when a student has a very acute or severe issue and doesn't have the resources to get help anywhere else,” Chugani said.

Chugani heard about a new course designed by University of Washington school psychology professor James Mazza that focused on mental wellness and was all-encompassing, Wellness and Resilience for College and Beyond.

“Working with at-risk adolescents in school-based settings and developing an emotion regulation curriculum for middle and high school students, it occurred to me that the same skills that we developed for middle and high school students could be applied to undergraduate students as well,” said Mazza. “So, I worked in developing the ‘wellness and resilience’ undergraduate course to help with the same issues, with a particular focus on freshman.”

After meeting with Mazza in 2017, Chugani decided to collaborate with him in bringing the course to Pitt for the fall 2019 term. The course also debuted in fall 2019 at Carnegie Mellon University and Carlow University. The University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and West Virginia University will introduce the course in the Spring 2020 term. Chugani is currently leading a study to investigate the acceptability, feasibility and preliminary effectiveness of the course at all five campuses. This project is made possible by donation of just over $500,000 from the Citrone 33 Foundation to support Chugani's work through the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation.

The three-credit, undergraduate course, offered by the University Honors College, is different from other wellness courses that teach positive psychology in that it uses skills from an evidence-based treatment called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which Chugani is also researching in an ongoing study.

While elements of positive psychology are included in the course, students are also taught on how to manage negative emotions, cope with adversity and learn interpersonal skills. 

“Positive psychology is great, but it isn’t just a lack of happiness that is the problem for many students,” Chugani said. “More kids today are depressed and anxious and they need skills for coping with or reducing these symptoms. While DBT was originally developed to treat chronically suicidal and self-injurious behavior, the DBT skills are also cornerstones of mental wellbeing.”

Students are taught skills in a traditional classroom setting to help better manage their emotions, develop coping strategies during emotional distress and employ decision-making that focuses on interpersonal relationships. Mindfulness skills are a final key concept that is emphasized throughout the semester.

“I find it to actually be a stress reliever to go to this class,” said Eliza Nassivera, a senior psychology student at Pitt. “I came into the class excited about what I could gain, but I never thought it would be so much. The course not only teaches you skills to help you throughout the semester, but is also not a super difficult class that is going stress you out.”

Chugani said she plans to make the course materials open-sourced when her team is finished researching and refining the materials, so other universities can teach it to students.

“What we’re trying to do is create a scalable way for students to not only survive, but thrive in college and into adulthood and the workforce,” she said.