PAWS promotes mental health awareness through education, programming and cats

A kitten gazes wistfully while being held by a student. The Purple Power Animal Welfare Society brought cats to the K-State Student Union on Dec. 4, 2018 to help relieve student stress before finals week in an event planned by the Peer Advocates for Mental Wellness and Success. (File photo by Bailey Nobrega | Collegian Media Group)

You’ve probably noticed the pets on campus—be it the Pet Away Stress dogs or the feline friends at Cats, Crafts and Cameras in the Student Union on Wednesday.

The organization behind these pet-related events is PAWS, but despite the name, the group’s main focus isn’t animals. The Peer Advocates for Mental Wellness and Success are students who care about their fellow Wildcats first and foremost.

“We’re trying to build a community surrounding mental health,” said Matthew Burnett, senior in nutritional sciences and PAWS vice president.

PAWS is a departmental student organization under Kansas State’s Counseling Services. Wendy Barnes, online programs coordinator for Counseling Services, said PAWS helps create awareness around specific mental health topics, providing information through programming and presentations.

The organization’s members also use events and presentations to connect students with on-campus resources, like the four free-of-charge therapy sessions students can use per year.

“College is a time where it’s very stressful, very turbulent, so there’s a lot of times where it’s like, ‘I’ve never experienced this before, why do I feel this way? I’ve never had this feeling before,'” said Sophia Leonard, senior in biological systems engineering and PAWS treasurer. “PAWS is a really good way of helping people find who they need to help them figure out what’s happening.”

Any student can be in the organization and volunteer at PAWS events through the semester. However, to give presentations concerning mental wellness topics, students must become certified peer educators through the Interaction and Guidance for the Paraprofessional course. Barnes teaches the section specifically for PAWS participants.

“[Peer educators] have taken the EDCEP 311 class and they’ve learned peer education skills such as listening, communication, crisis response, bystander intervention, programming, event planning,” Barnes said. “Also, they’ve been trained by clinical staff from Counseling Services on specific mental health topics.”

The course’s final exam is a national certification exam for peer educators. After the students are certified peer educators, Barnes said they can then give presentations about mental health topics on campus via Counseling Services.

“They’ve got a good reputation for being accurate and knowledgeable,” Barnes said. “I go to their presentations if it’s their first time just simply to be there for mental support and answer any questions that they can’t yet.”
Gerry Bolden, senior in secondary education, says hello to Oliver, one of the foster dogs helping at a PAWS "Pet Away the Stress" event while Greg Woods, sophomore in journalism, holds Oliver in his arms. (Olivia Bergmeier | Collegian Media Group)

PAWS members do not have to take the class to be involved with the organization as a whole.

“If you’re going to go out and teach, you need to have this qualification,” said Alexandria Bontrager, senior in microbiology and PAWS president. “But if you come to the meetings, we will give you resources and information, and you can volunteer and participate in those activities. Anyone can do the club; the CPEs are just the teaching part of it.”

Each student joins PAWS or takes the peer certification class for different reasons. For Carly Tracz, graduate student in student development, she said she initially took Barnes’ first EDCEP 311 course in the spring 2017 semester because she needed one more credit hour to have full-time status that semester.

“I’ve always just had an interest in mental health and have dealt with my own mental health for a while, so I figured it was a good fit,” Tracz said. “After volunteering and being involved in the class, I got even more interested in mental health, and that’s why I actually went to grad school.”

Tracz said the course and PAWS changed her career path. She is now the assistant outreach coordinator with Counseling Services.

Since PAWS has only been active for two years on campus, Bontrager said the group is still looking to incorporate new activities and pair with other student organizations.

“We’ve given presentations to other student organizations,” Bontrager said. “We partner with them in that way, but it would be cool to do events.”

The group already has a long lineup of events for students this semester. The latest event, Cats, Crafts and Cameras on Wednesday, was co-sponsored by the Union Program Council and Purple Power Animal Welfare Society.

The cats will return with PAWS on Feb. 15 for Cats, Canvases and Cameras. Other spring events include Color Stigma Away, Clarifying Consent and Walk-a-Mile in Her Shoes.

Natalie Leonard, PAWS secretary and sophomore in journalism and Spanish, said her favorite experience being in PAWS came from a booth the group presented called “The Elephant in Your Room.”

“That’s where people will write down on little elephants something that they might be struggling with, and then we pin them all up,” Leonard said. “Because mental illness can be an isolating thing sometimes, I feel like you think to yourself, ‘Why do I feel this way? Other people don’t feel this way.’

“I had the opportunity to work that particular booth, and it was just so amazing to watch so many people see all of the things they never talk about, and they could say, ‘I struggle with that,'” Leonard continued. “‘Someone else struggles with it and they had the courage to put it up there and say I’m not alone.’ I really like that we promote that mindset that we exist because you’re not the only one who feels this way and you need to know.”

PAWS meets at 7 p.m. every other Tuesday—starting Jan. 29—in Rathbone 1052.

Students can keep up with PAWS events and the group’s podcast on Facebook, Instagram (@cs.paws), Twitter (@cs_paws) and Snapchat (cs_paws).

I'm Dene Dryden, and I graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor's of Arts in English. Before graduating, I worked at the Collegian for more than three years as a copy chief, managing editor and editor-in-chief. I also served a term on the Collegian Media Group Board of Directors. While at K-State, I also worked at Wildcat 91.1 FM. My cat Robyn is the light of my life, and I take compliments in the form of coffee.