How Willow Helps Students Manage Stress | Spotlight

Wellesley students who are feeling overwhelmed or stressed can turn to Willow, an online program developed by Tracy Gladstone, associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) and senior research scholar, and colleagues and technology-based support for stress management and more offers .

While Willow is not intended as a resource for students who are suffering from depression or are currently seeking treatment for it, it can be used by those who would like support in managing their emotions or moods. (The name was inspired by a line from a Robert Jordan novel: “The oak tree fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.”)

Gladstone’s research focuses on preventing depression in adolescents, adolescents and families. She and a colleague had created and evaluated an internet-based program similar to Willow’s for teens, and she says she decided to adapt it for college students, knowing that many struggle with low mood, depression and anxiety. “I had this evidence-based resource, and I felt like it just made sense to try and introduce a preventive resource to the college population,” she said.

Willow consists of 14 modules. Students are free to work through them at their own pace, and the skills they learn in each build upon one another. To gain access to the program, students can schedule a preliminary motivational interview with Katherine Germak, a licensed social worker and a member of the Willow team, or simply get started themselves.

Skipping the interview is a new option this year. “I know that if you put a person in an online intervention and ask them to just do it, make behavior changes, it doesn’t really work, it doesn’t really work,” Gladstone said. “These programs work better when you couple them with some kind of human contact.” But the students saw that as an obstacle…”[they] told us she’s having a really hard time emailing and reaching out to us,” she said — so the team made this step optional.

Students can find posters on campus with information about Willow.

During the design process for Willow, Wellesley students participated in focus groups, answered research questions, created characters for the modules and shared stories, and provided voiceovers to make the program ADA compliant.

Katherine Buchholz, a WCW postdoc who has been helping at Willow since 2019, said the team tailored the program specifically for Wellesley students. “We want students to be able to … connect to campus through the Willow program,” she said.

Buchholz says students find it helpful that Willow guides them through their long-term goals and shows how to achieve them — something that can get lost in the rush of a school week. They also said they value the cognitive skills the program teaches. Willow encourages them to “look at their thoughts, look at the automatic thoughts that pop up for them, and then try to rephrase them or find more helpful ways or more helpful things to say to themselves,” she said.

Gladstone, who will transfer to Brown University on November 1 but will continue to work part-time at WCW to work on Willow, hopes the program will continue to grow. She wants students to see it as a resource where they can learn problem-solving and interpersonal strategies that will help them stay healthy while meeting the challenges of a young adult. “Ultimately, I would like to expand the resources offered through this platform and have the opportunity to work with other colleges and universities to develop similar programs for their specific student communities,” she said.

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