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‘Pride Cares’ initiative is working to break the stigma of mental health on campus

By Cait Kemp

Mental health is a prominent issue among young adults, and especially on college campuses today. According to Lauren Gray, a counselor at the campus Counseling Center, 60-70% of college students between the ages of 18-25 have experienced some type of anxiety. It is a major health concern, yet one that is still so stigmatized in society.

Back in 2019, Springfield College hosted speaker Victoria Garrick, a former Division I volleyball player who now tours around the country speaking to college students about mental health and the impact it can have on even the most successful athletes and students. Last year, Springfield College student-athletes created the Minds in Motion club to support peers in their own journey with mental health struggles.

Throughout the past several years with these different types of experiences, the College community has started to create more awareness about mental health and the ways in which students can help one another to cope with these issues.

Another step in the process of normalizing the conversation about mental health has recently been initiated — Pride Cares.

Pride Cares is modeled off the Green Bandana Project, a mental health awareness campaign that educates students on how to support people who may need a peer’s help.

Gray, who is also the Minds in Motion club advisor, began the initiative along with Professor of Sport Management and Faculty Athletics Representative Bob Accorsi. The pair brought the idea to the Athletics Department to begin a program that would pilot this spring.

The pilot program was initially introduced to student-athletes and the Minds of Motion club leaders. From the initial email, Gray received 87 students who were interested in participating. She was able to cut the list down to 28 for the first spring session, and will continue in the fall with more students.

Through Pride Cares, students go through a training process of three sessions based on the “ACT” model. The training process curriculum was developed by Gray, Accorsi and several students in the doctorate program of psychology.

“We looked into Green Bandana and they didn’t have a curriculum, they didn’t have anything,” Gray said.

“We felt like we wanted to get behind it and develop our own curriculum that is unique to Springfield College. We wanted to think about where our needs are and make our own program.”

Connor Croan, one of the students in the doctorate program of psychology and a part of the initiative, used his knowledge and experience from his coursework in order to help create the curriculum for the program.

“It was a little bit of what skills are most effective for somebody who is struggling with a mental health concern,” said Croan. “A lot of it was around what is the effective language we can use when someone is struggling.”

The first session, “A” (Assess/Acknowledge), focuses on validating students’ feelings and concerns and beginning a dialogue that will approach it in the most effective way.

The second session, “C” (Care), teaches students in the class about the understanding of anxiety and continues to develop the correct language to use when initiating these types of conversations.

The final session of the course is “T”, or Tell/Treatment. In this session, students are informed about warning signs and escalating behaviors, and given resources that they can share with their peers who are in need.

“We really wanted to have both a content piece of [students] understanding external signs and internal symptoms of what’s going on for somebody who is struggling, but also applying it,” said Croan.

Training focuses on teaching students to be approachable, how to demonstrate active listening and being able to respond appropriately to the situation.

The ‘Pride Cares’ green tag that students will display on their backpacks.

“Students are not peer counselors, they are really like peer-support. We are not trying to equip someone with something that is beyond what they feel capable of doing,” said Gray.

Once students graduate from the training program, they are given a green tag to put on their backpack that indicates their position as a peer support person on campus. They also are given resource cards to carry with them that they can hand out to students who may be struggling.

The first training process took place over the last several weeks and the third session was completed Tuesday night. Gray, Accorsi and the psychology doctoral students involved finally got to see their vision of seven months come to fruition.

“We’re really grateful for the first group of students who came through, we had an outpouring of support of [students] who wanted to participate in this pilot program,” said Croan.

“There are still things we want to improve and grow with the program, but last night was a really special moment where this is the first group of peer supporters that are going to be on campus.”

After the completion of the first program, Gray is excited to continue the process into the fall and build upon the initiative moving forward.

“If we have one goal, it’s really to break the stigma of mental health and to normalize conversations around how we are doing, and to lean into conversations,” said Gray.

“Some of our stuff is quite simple and many of our students are already doing it, but it’s really kind of just helping them recognize they have support around the right language, and that they are bridging individuals to get the appropriate help that they may need.”

With such a high statistic of college students experiencing some type of mental health issues in their life, it only makes sense to acknowledge and discuss it openly with each other. This peer-to-peer support through Pride Cares is a step toward achieving that on campus.

Photo Courtesy Springfield College

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