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Division of Student Affairs

WSU event series aims to get people talking about mental health

Department: Division of Student Affairs

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Health educator Janet Lewis Muth will talk about neuroplasticity and its relation to mental health during a visit to Washington State University’s Pullman campus March 25-26. Muth is the director of Health Promotion at Carleton College in Minnesota and an expert on not only how our brains change during our lifespans, but also how they are designed to heal.

Muth’s presentation will be the fifth in a year-long series of events focused on eliminating the stigma of mental health so that students, faculty, and staff can feel comfortable having conversations about it. Though some may still think of mental health as a taboo subject, others are sensing that progress is being made.

Normalize the human experience

WSU Pullman senior Grace Arnis, a rower on the Cougar Crew team, has no doubt about it. She has noticed a definite uptick this year in how often mental health comes up in conversations she has with friends. In fact, she is hearing more people talk about it all over campus.

Arnis is the outreach chair for the Student Athletes Advisory Committee (SAAC). She and a dozen other SAAC members completed 20 hours of mental health training at the beginning of the school year and have worked tirelessly to provide similar training to all new student athletes at WSU, reaching well over 200 so far.

“When we are being physically tough as an athlete, we do really hard workouts,” Arnis said. “But when we think about being mentally tough, we have been taught that means ignoring when you’re feeling bad instead of working to feel better.”

It is a practice that is not confined to student athletes, mental health advocate Ross Zabo told WSU audiences during his visit to Pullman last month. The message has been reinforced at all of the campus events, whether it be during the film documentary shown in October that focused on childhood adversity or Michelle Poler’s November presentation about facing 100 fears in 100 days. We all face mental challenges, just as we all deal with physical challenges in our everyday lives. 

Taylor said she hopes the series of events helps to normalize the human experience by weaving awareness of mental health issues into the fabric of our community.

“Mental health is a continuum and we all move up and down that continuum day to day, year to year and over the course of our lives, just like we do with our physical health,” she said. “We need to constantly be thinking about how to manage the natural ups and downs of life and how we can take better care of ourselves.”

Time for a different approach

Taylor said the sudden death of WSU quarterback Tyler Hilinski a little over a year ago helped bring the topic into the public’s eye, but mental illness is something that universities around the country have grappled with long before Tyler’s death, and will continue to address for years to come.

University officials felt the time was right to try something new, a well-coordinated and persistent effort that could result in positive change over time.

Last summer Mary Jo Gonzales, vice president for Student Affairs, and WSU Athletic Director Patrick Chun formed what is called the Mental Health Event Series Planning Committee. The group is chaired by Taylor and consists of a dozen faculty, staff and students who represent a variety of key areas including the Associated Students of Washington State University (ASWSU), the Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA), Athletics Department, the Center for Civic Engagement, University Recreation, Cougar Health Services, Multicultural Student Services and the Women’s Center.

Committee member Josh Munroe, who also serves as GPSA’s vice president of Legislative Affairs, said the group faced a bit of an intimidation factor at first due to the complexity of mental health and the large number of people they hoped to reach.

“One thing about mental health, especially at a university, is everything connects back to it,” Munroe said. “Whether you have academic concerns, relationships concerns, or food insecurity for example, it all leads back to one’s mental state and how that informs one’s success and ability to navigate the academic system.”

Knowing how to effectively address something so pervasive could stump even the most well-intentioned individuals. But Jerry Pastore, associate athletic director for Student Athlete Development and Well-Being said he noticed something special about this group right away.

“We have the right people around the table who are highly motivated,” Pastore said. “As a professional, I’m very grateful to be a part of it.”

Game Day for Mental Health

Pastore has been working with SAAC to plan mental health workshops that will coincide with WSU’s annual spring football game in April. As part of Game Day for Mental Health, he said SAAC will invite student-athletes and coaches at Pullman High School, and possibly other surrounding school districts, to participate in mental health training before attending the game together.

“We want to promote the importance of developing values, teamwork, empathy, and character development in coaching,” he said. “These are key components to good mental health in sports.”

WSU Athletics is working with the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation to develop mental health programming specifically for student-athletes. These efforts are being evaluated by the Institute to Promote Athlete Health & Wellness at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. The findings will help shape the future of mental health education at WSU and other universities across the nation.

A life-long project

Although the Mental Health Event Series Planning Committee was given a one-year charge, Taylor is certain the work of the committee will continue in some shape or form next academic year. The momentum they have built and the feedback they have received shows they are on the right track and people appreciate having this type of programming on campus.

“Mental health is a life-long project,” Taylor said. “None of us goes to one workshop or an event and comes away saying cool, I’m good, I’m going to do A, B, and C and my mental health will be set for life. Taking care of one’s mental health has to be a daily practice.”