When Christina Wagner went to Knox College she had aspirations of becoming a lawyer. She took all the required courses for pre-law and was on track but, during a meeting with her adviser in the second semester of her senior year, she changed her mind.
“I remember the day. We were sitting in his office, talking about my schedule,” when, she says, she realized “that I left home, came here and had been exposed to so many new ideas. This person, my adviser, has shaped my life in a lot of ways similar to my parents. What an amazing role to work with students at such a transformational time.” And that was the pivotal moment. “I said, I want to do this, work with students. I don’t want to be a lawyer.”
Wagner, an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at DePauw, thinks a lot of people who teach at universities such as DePauw “do so because of really important faculty connections we had in our own experiences.”
After earning a master’s degree and a Ph.D., she received training as a clinical health psychologist specializing in psycho-oncology, a field focusing on aspects of cancer that go beyond medical treatment to include lifestyle as well as psychological and social aspects of the disease. Wagner was drawn to health psychology “because of caring for my own aging and dying grandparents who had struggled with diabetes and cancer.”
Wagner has been teaching at DePauw since 2007, with a hiatus from 2011 to 2014 when she worked in oncology at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington D.C. Because she grew up in a military family, “veterans and the military population are very near and dear to me,” so she was especially eager for the opportunity to work at Walter Reed.
“Luckily,” she says,“the content I cover lends itself well to that, but even in courses like research methods, which really has nothing to do with mental illness, I still try to check in with students frequently. "
Since her return to teaching at DePauw, she is on the steering committee for the global health program and teaches a new senior seminar course focusing on global mental health. “It’s been really interesting to dive into this course because, while students do a lot of research on physical illnesses, epidemics and pandemics, they hadn’t recognized how much disability is caused internationally by severe mental illness.”
Wagner also serves as president of the Mental Health Association in Putnam County. Its role is to raise awareness of mental health issues trying to reduce stigma, connect people who need services to services and coordinate prevention programs.
So, it’s no surprise, given her diverse background and expertise, that Wagner has advice when asked how to best address students’ mental health concerns on DePauw’s campus.
“In every class we teach, we have several students who have depression, anxiety, or OCD or knows someone who has suicided or attempted suicide or has a relative who struggles with a severe mental illness. A lot of students are on medications for ADHD, trauma, sexual assault. The list goes on and on. Our students have the same challenges that everybody does nationally – having to wait for care, having limited access to a psychiatrist and really struggling to learn for themselves some basic self-care skills,” she says.
So Wagner talks about these topics in her classes. “Luckily,” she says,“the content I cover lends itself well to that, but even in courses like research methods, which really has nothing to do with mental illness, I still try to check in with students frequently. I ask: How are you are doing? How are you managing stress or feeling about it?” She also tries to help students recognize that, “we’re all human and maybe need a concession every now and then.”