Be REAL program helps Huskies feel less stressed, more connected

In late 2022, Rodrigo “Rudy” Gallardo, ’25, was warming up for a wrestling meet with Western Washington University when his nerves kicked in. Instead of pushing his anxious thoughts away, Gallardo pulled out his journal and started writing down what he felt.

Suddenly, he realized his anxiety was rooted in the fear of letting his team down. Naming that fear helped him work through it—and he went on to win all three of his matches that day.

Gallardo discovered this journaling technique through Be REAL (REsilient Attitudes & Living), a six-week well-being program that combines mindfulness, self-compassion, neuroscience and cognitive-behavioral coping strategies. Participants meet in small groups for 90-minute weekly sessions with a trained facilitator who guides them through discussion, activities, contemplative practices like meditation and journaling, and cognitive-behavioral practices such as reframing and unpacking thought patterns.

It was eye-opening for Gallardo to learn what worked for him in stressful situations like that wrestling match, because he didn’t have much experience talking about his mental health. “I would have appreciated it as a freshman,” he reflects, recalling the burnout and social disconnection he faced in his first year at the UW. “It felt like a support group and made me look forward to it.”

He’s one of more than 1,000 UW students across all three UW campuses who have participated in the research-based program, a partnership between the UW’s Resilience Lab and the Center for Child & Family Well-Being (CCFW). In 2022, University President Ana Mari Cauce designated resources from the UW Fund to expand the program’s reach—part of an effort to combat the mental health crisis facing the nation’s college campuses, including at the UW.

It shouldn’t puzzle us why there is a dramatic rise in anxiety and depression. There’s a sense of threat in our youths’ lives right now.

Liliana Lengua, Professor of Psychology

Current undergraduate students are navigating the transition to college during a time of major social, economic and political uncertainty, explains CCFW director Liliana Lengua. “It shouldn’t puzzle us why there is a dramatic rise in anxiety and depression,” says Lengua, the UW Maritz Family Foundation Professor of Psychology. “There’s a sense of threat in our youths’ lives right now. They feel uncertainty about the future. Their bodies feel threatened, especially if they’re women or people of color.” She notes that students also lose their connections to traditional support systems and relationships when they go to college, particularly if they’re far from home.

The annual Healthy Minds study, which surveys college students worldwide about their mental health, found that in the 2021–22 academic year, 44% reported symptoms of depression and 37% reported anxiety disorders. Those percentages are often higher for groups subjected to systemic barriers and oppression, including Black and transgender students.

The charge of mental health care often falls to university counseling centers, which have the capacity to serve only a percentage of students, explains Resilience Lab Director Megan Kennedy. Be REAL supports students before they may need clinical treatment or intervention—and aims to “create a culture of well-being on college campuses,” she says.

Research shows the program is working. In 2017, Lengua and her CCFW colleagues rolled out Be REAL to more than 200 students in UW residence halls. The results from that first study were overwhelmingly positive, with students reporting more happiness, resilience and social connection—and less stress and anxiety. Those results, plus student and facilitator feedback, helped fine-tune the program and amplify the most effective parts in its next iteration.

One of the program’s goals is to reach groups that have been historically or institutionally excluded, so the Resilience Lab offered Be REAL in affinity spaces like the Q Center, which supports LGBTQIA+ students. Partnering with advisers and mentors within those groups, and training them to facilitate Be REAL, helps create a setting where students feel support-ed and understood, Lengua says.

By mobilizing staff members to lead groups, we’re able to reach more students, specifically those who might not go to the counseling center.

Megan Kennedy, Resilience Lab director

The next logical step was to extend Be REAL to staff and faculty working directly with students. “If we can build the resilience of staff and instructors, we might also improve the culture of well-being overall for everybody,” says Kennedy. “By mobilizing staff members to lead groups, we’re able to reach more students, specifically those who might not go to the counseling center.” Of the 400 staff and faculty who have participated in Be REAL, 70 are now trained facilitators.

Be REAL came into Professor Michelle H. Martin’s life during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering her a necessary space to slow down and connect with others. She loved the ability to choose which strategies worked for her. “It draws on so many different practices that if there’s something that doesn’t feel like you, you can skip it and do something else,” says Martin, the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children and Youth Services in the Information School.

Martin instantly saw the benefits of being able to create that space for her students and academic colleagues and signed up for facilitator training. She incorporated Be REAL into a study abroad program she led to New Zealand this past summer and intends to make it part of a retreat she’s helping plan for Black faculty.

Both Kennedy and Lengua say they’re excited to see facilitators like Martin make Be REAL their own. Some departments are offering Be REAL as a credit course, while other instructors are integrating Be REAL content into their curriculum. Lengua notes, “It really gives students the maximum flexibility in terms of where it fits into their lives to access the program.”

Be REAL is also expanding to other campuses in Washington and across the country. With support from a UW Population Health Initiative grant, CCFW collaborated with the Resilience Lab to train facilitators at 18 other institutions, including Washington State University, Western Washing-ton University, Seattle University, the University of Texas at Austin and Johns Hopkins University.

This cross-campus collaboration is key to Be REAL’s success in creating lasting culture change, Kennedy says. “Students are more resilient because they know how to cope with stress more effectively,” she adds. “But our entire community is working toward that outcome, too. That’s something we can’t capture in the research.”