In spring 2023, RGK Center Director Dr. David Springer led a Policy Research Project (PRP) course through the LBJ School of Public Affairs titled “The Architecture of Happiness: Designing Policies and Programs that Promote Mental Wellbeing.”
Throughout the semester, students worked in small groups to examine evidence-based policies and programs that lead to enhanced mental health and well-being among college students. Student teams developed recommendations for the project’s client, The University of Texas at Austin, addressing different components of student mental health on campus. Student groups presented their research and recommendations to a group of local mental health professionals and campus leaders at the end of April to close out the project.
In his course syllabus, Dr. Springer notes that “numerous studies have identified mental well-being as one of the top community issues in need of critical infrastructure and innovation." Springer is a licensed clinical social worker with a background in youth mental health services and teaches courses related to leadership and happiness at UT Austin.
Among the questions guiding the course was, “Given that the demand for mental health services far exceeds the capacity to meet that demand, how can the system of mental health care be improved for all students attending UT Austin?” Student groups collaborated with various campus leaders and mental health experts in the community and on campus. The full list of questions and goals for the PRP can be found in the course syllabus.
Throughout the course, students worked collaboratively and in small groups to address different parts of the project, including identifying and framing the problem; gathering qualitative data through interviews; analyzing secondary research; and proposing solutions and next steps.
University and community leaders gathered at the LBJ School to listen to students in Dr. Springer's PRP and they shared their findings and recommendations for student mental health on campus.
McKenzie Martin, a graduate student at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, was part of the student group researching best practices in university peer support programs and how UT Austin could use these groups to cultivate a stronger community of care. Their group found that peer support groups on university campuses can lead to a rise in student self-esteem and confidence and a reduction in hospital admittance rates, among other findings.
“I can use my understanding of liberating structures, eco-cycle planning and design thinking to collaborate with stakeholders and create solutions to effectively address the complex issues society is facing,” said Martin.
Below are overviews of all groups’ final projects and research findings. A full list of course deliverables can be found at the bottom of the page.
Group 1: Straight from the Longhorn’s Mouth
Students in this group developed a research plan to address the question, “What resources on campus can be synthesized and/or better promoted to create a more resilient mental health system?” The group conducted interviews with 18 undergraduate students on the UT Austin campus, selected at random. Students were asked questions including, “How do you define mental health?” and “What could UT do better towards student mental health?”
Overall, the group determined that students were not aware of all of the mental health services on campus but had a broad understanding of what mental health is. In their final report, PRP students concluded that, “students have developed various ways to support their mental health but stressed the importance of communicating these issues in a more meaningful manner.”
Group 2: Supporting the Whole Student
Through interviews with UT staff and secondary research, this group explored environmental factors that may contribute to worsened mental health and well-being before students connect with UT Austin’s Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC). Their key findings included:
Concerns about stress and academic outcomes are on the rise nationwide.
There is a gap in research about faculty's direct impact on student well-being.
The "whole student" approach to learning has positive impacts on well-being.
Some of their recommendations included developing a Mental Health resource tab in every course Canvas page for students to access easily and making well-being a core value at UT Austin.
Group 3: Come Together: Enhancing Peer Support at UT
UT Austin currently offers resources for peer support groups through their Longhorn SHARE program at University Health Services.
This group conducted a literature review of the framework of policy support for peer support groups and outlined mental health outcomes for students involved in peer support groups. They conducted research on best practices of peer support groups on other university campuses nationwide, including The University of Albany, MIT, and Vanderbilt. Final recommendations included ways to increase support and usage of UT Austin’s current peer support program, Longhorn SHARE.
Group 4: The Cost of Community: Housing and Mental Well-Being
Students in this group examined the history behind Austin's zoning policies and why it can be difficult for students to find affordable housing near UT Austin's campus. They also explored why housing is important for students' wellbeing, noting that students who live on campus engage more with academics and the university; living on campus is also associated with higher GPAs and graduatation rates.
In their podcast episode, student interviewed a current UT Austin student named Jewel, who shared her experience as an incoming student struggling to find affordable housing on or near campus. Despite having scholarships and financial aid to support tuition costs, Jewel couldn't pay for the high on-campus dorm costs -- the lowest of which cost around $13,000 for the school year.
“It was a quick dream-breaker," Jewel says in the podcast. "I was very scared to take out a loan for anything regarding college and not know if I could pay it back, and then restart that cycle of poverty that I had seen in my family."
Recommendations from this student group included UT Austin implementing transitional zoning near campus, such as townhomes and duplexes, as well as creating more opportunities for students living off-campus to engage and connect with the university.
This course was supported by the generous philanthropy of the Hackett Family Foundation. Special thanks to Dr. Chris Brownson, UT Austin’ Associate Vice President for Health and Well-Being and his entire team, Lucas Artusi with the Design Run Group, Dr. Lynda Frost and Emiliano Villareal, Dr. Michael Osborne, Professors Lee Walker and Mark Strama, and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.
Links to Group Deliverables
Straight from the Longhorn’s Mouth
Supporting the Whole Student
Come Together: Enhancing Peer Support at UT
The Cost of Community: Housing and Mental Well-Being
Podcast Episode (YouTube or SoundCloud)