Students, specialists and special guest Bill Snyder took part in a panel discussion dedicated to mental health awareness Tuesday afternoon. Nicholas Wallace, an associate professor in the division of biology at Kansas State, moderated the discussion.
During the discussion, Wallace asked panel members questions about mental health struggles, resources and individual experiences. The panel was held in-person and through Zoom, with two counselors on-site and phone numbers available through Zoom in case anyone was overwhelmed by the contents of the discussion.
Panelists included Arnaldo Torres-Hernandez, graduate student in organic chemistry; Sakshi Bhati, graduate teaching assistant in leadership communication; Dr. Kodee Walls, assistant director of counseling services; Amanda Gaulke, assistant professor of economics; Dr. Kyle Goerl, medical director for Lafene Health Center; Bill Snyder, former K-State head football coach; Columba Herrera-Gonzalez, senior in computer science; Regan Bond, junior in psychology; and Chris Bowman, director of the Morrison Family Center for Student Well-Being.
Walls opened the discussion acknowledging the current climate surrounding mental health as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and when people should consider professional help.
“We’ve been in [the pandemic] for so long that I think we’re really still in survival mode,” Walls said. “So, some of the things that we would have paid attention to in the past, that we would maybe call pink flags vs. red flags for something seriously wrong, we sort of put aside in an effort to just … get through classes, working to fulfill our research requirements and doing our [graduate assistant] work.”
Walls said it is normal to feel sad or worried and that neither signifies a mental health disorder. However, she said intense feelings of sadness, anxiety or risky thoughts might lend themselves to professional help.
“It’s very normal to be sad or upset,” Walls said. “But when we’re having a lot of trouble identifying at what point something happened, then it could be a good indicator again that we should start looping in our support system and consider coming to counseling and psychological services.”
Bowman took time to explain the Green Bandana project, a mental health awareness campaign dedicated to informing and training students to talk about resources available on campus. Students who complete the specialized training receive a green bandana to display somewhere on their person so students can reach out if needed.
“That peer-to-peer connection we think is really, really valuable because I think our best resource here at K-State are the students,” Bowman said. “They engage [with] more people in one day than probably this panel does in a whole month.”
Herrera-Gonzalez said the main barriers that kept her from using the resources on campus were the cultural stigmas surrounding mental health and the belief that her problems weren’t important enough.
“I’m Hispanic, and in the Hispanic community, there’s very much a stigma against going to medical doctors,” Herrera-Gonzalez said. “It’s like … ‘Oh, you’re feeling sad? Just go out and, you know, eat a good meal.'”
She said asking for help was hard because it felt like a waste of their time. However, after getting through the doors and getting the help she needed, Herrera-Gonzalez said she loved the experience.
As an international student, Bhati said language barriers and pressure from family contributed to her mental health struggles. The effects of COVID-19 also hit close to home, she said.
“Not being able to go home, not being able to get in touch with our families on time, fear of our parents being away and sick,” Bhati said. “I lost my father last year to COVID myself, so I know the kind of pressure that it puts on me.”
Bhati talked about her struggles with anxiety because of these added difficulties. She said that, while it is not something that cannot be solved, the experiences of international students are often overlooked because of where they are from and the stigmatization of mental health in their households.
Giving advice on well-being and defining balance in life, coach Snyder said surrounding yourself with good people is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
“The significant thing to me, I think, is that we surround ourselves with people who generally care about us, people who want to see us do well, people who do well, do right themselves,” Snyder said. “I think as a student, we have access to so many people, and we can make some bad choices in that respect.”
Apart from surrounding yourself with good people, Snyder also said it is important to pinpoint goals and priorities and set a few small goals each day. For some, that can be as simple as getting out of bed in the morning.
“It’s amazing what happens when you put that first foot on the floor,” Snyder said. “You can make yourself do that, [there’s] not a person in this room who can’t make yourself do that. Once the first foot goes on the floor, the second one will follow, I promise you that.”
Snyder offered a personal example of this mindset, talking about the vehicular accident his daughter Meredith was in as a junior in high school. Despite doctors saying she would never walk again because of her injuries, Snyder said he knew that would not be the case.
“Six weeks after the surgery, she was in Dallas Rehab Institute,” Snyder said. “She walked out of the institute with a helping hand and a cane. … We have greater control over that which we do than sometimes we desire to admit.”