Photo by Jessica Kim
October 15, 2014 at 12:00 AM | Jessica Kim
Last year, when Yogis at UW (YUW) reached its 300-person capacity within the first month of school, the club founder, Alysha Greig, realized that the UW needed something bigger than a Registered Student Organization (RSO) to take care of students’ mental health.
“It was exciting but overwhelming,” Greig said. “… We had to turn away 100 students because we were too full [due to space and instructor limitations]. It made me think that something like this has to be offered on a larger scale, and not necessarily just yoga, but things that help students relieve stress, slow down, and connect.”
College students lead high-stress, fast-paced lives. Even as a high-schooler, Greig was a type-A, perfectionist, grade-zealous student for whom yoga class was the only time she didn’t have to compete and could focus on herself. It wasn’t until yoga and mindfulness helped her through her depression that she became invested in practicing both, motivating her to start YUW, an RSO dedicated to yoga and its philosophies.
According to Meghann Gerber, a mental health therapist at the Hall Health Mental Health Clinic, the demand to perform is exceptionally high for college students. They often study too much and sleep too little under the pressure of getting good grades, getting into a major, and figuring out life after graduation.
That’s why Greig is starting a new RSO, the UW Mindfulness Project, this year.
Greig, a senior majoring in philosophy, said she doesn’t see a proactive place for mental health care on campus. She believes that the Counseling Center and the Hall Health Mental Health Clinic aren’t enough.
“The majority of students are either not going to ask for help because of the stigma behind it or because they are going to wait until things are at their absolute worst,” Greig said. “So part of my hope and goal is that there would be a space on campus where people can go on a regular basis, every day or three times a week, in the same way you would go to a gym, to keep their stress in check.”
The effects of mindfulness-based practices are supported by scientific studies; research at various institutions such as University of Massachusetts and UCLA have shown practices help with depression and anxiety. According to Gerber, therapists and psychologists are using various kinds of mindfulness-based intervention programs for depression, anxiety, and even eating disorders.
Gerber has been teaching a mindfulness-based stress reduction course at the Mental Health Clinic at Hall Health, adapted from a course originally developed as a chronic pain management program at the University of Massachusetts. However, she pointed out a problem with offering stress relief programs at a mental health clinic.
“One of the elements of mindfulness is accepting and understanding yourself, but the fact that the course is offered at the Mental [Health] Clinic says that there is something wrong with you,” Gerber said. “It’s contradictory to try to get people to consider that anxiety and depression are normative responses to stresses while having them come to a place that says there’s something wrong with them.”
Gerber said she wonders whether more people would participate if such a program was offered under a different context. That’s where Greig’s vision comes in.
The UW Mindfulness Project’s long-term mission is to establish a mindfulness center on campus that is dedicated to mental health care, incorporating not just yoga and meditation but also activities such as creative arts and writing, and would engage people in self-reflection and self-expression. It would also involve therapeutic and counseling services.
Greig admits her goal is ambitious, but she believes it is essential for the UW.
Juliana Borges, the former president of Huskies for Suicide Prevention & Awareness (HSPA), agrees with Greig, pointing out that mental health care services at the UW are too individualized.
“Right now, it’s very much, ‘You have a problem with your mental health, you go fix it by yourself,’” Borges said. “But the crucial part of mental health care is that you bring it to the community. We as a community need to work together to better each others’ mental health, which would come to life with the UW Mindfulness Project or the HSPA.”
Gerber believes stress is a universal and normal mental health experience that needs to be taken care of, just as one should exercise to maintain the health of the physical body.
“No one says just because you go to the IMA that there’s something wrong with you,” Gerber said. “People go to the IMA to maintain their health and get healthier.”
The UW Mindfulness Project is currently in the development stage. Approximately 10 members, including Greig, are doing background work for the project, raising awareness, writing a business plan, and submitting a resolution to the ASUW for support.
The project has gotten much positive feedback, but progress has been slow.
“The UW is a huge institution and it’s been really challenging to figure out who to talk to to make this actually happen,” Greig said. “I’ve talked to tons of people and almost all of them have [said], ‘Yeah, we like the idea and we’re all excited,’ … but very few administrators have actually stepped up and said, ‘I will help you out.’ We really can’t get a place like this without someone doing that for us.”
As they try to gather more support, the group is focusing on a shorter term mission, which is to get one room on campus where they can implement some of their programs and begin offering meditation, yoga, as well as seminars to engage students in the project. Although this wouldn’t be enough to serve as much of the UW student population as Greig would like, it would be a starting point.
One of the smaller projects, currently in the works for November, is a mindfulness pledge. This would involve handing out approximately 400 bracelets to those who pledge to a list of mindful practices, such as, “I pledge not to walk with my cell phone in my hand.”
In the meantime, taking care of mental health doesn’t have to wait until a mindfulness center comes around; it can start right now.
According to Greig and Gerber, “mindfulness” is consciously paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It is being present and connected to what is going on with oneself and one’s surroundings. It is making active choices about how one wants to live.
Greig addressed the general perception that mindfulness is a boring sitting-meditation that wouldn’t work for active people; according to this veteran of the practice, mindfulness can be applied to anything, from walking across the campus to eating. One can take any activity, such as eating an apple, and apply awareness by focusing on how it tastes and how the body reacts to it.
“When you have this heightened sense of connection with yourself and the world around you, you feel more fulfilled with life,” Greig said. “It helped me to become grateful and develop a stronger sense of purpose without having the urgency to have a plan and know what I’m going to do right away. Being mindful has really helped me to take things step by step and trust the process.”
Reach writer Jessica Kim at firstname.lastname@example.org.