Campuses are making mental health a priority with festivals, workshops
From pet therapy to peer counselling, colleges and students are stepping up.
College students are turning wellness ambassadors, organising pet therapy sessions, curating poster exhibitions and hosting festivals — all to create a safe space for students to discuss mental health on campus.
When a first-year BA student at Jai Hind College broke up with her boyfriend of three years, she didn’t know who to turn to. Her parents hadn’t known about the relationship, her friends’ only advice was to ‘move on’.
Then she approached a fellow student with the ‘Wellness Ambassador’ badge. “We talked and it seemed to help,” the ambassador says. “All she really wanted was to vent. A few weeks later, she took up an internship to help divert her mind, something she had discussed in our conversations. She already knew what she wanted to do. All she needed was a free and safe space where she could voice the thoughts in her head and not be judged.”
There are 20 Wellness Ambassadors (WAs) from across faculties at Jai Hind College, trained as part of the mental health outreach programme launched by its Wellness Cell last year.
The WAs are trained by in-house counsellor Mahek Punjabi, who heads the wellness cell, in collaboration with the Samaritans suicide prevention helpline.
“Often, students hesitate to approach the on-campus counsellor directly,” says Punjabi. “So having students as a go-between help. We plan to rope in volunteers every year and build a strong team of WAs. They are trained in active listening -- how to be empathetic, sensitive, the kind of questions to ask and to avoid. And they refer students to me if it’s a serious issue.”
The Wellness Cell is also proactive — when the Blue Whale Challenge reared its head last year, students performed a skit on why it should be avoided. In the works currently are sessions on sex and sexuality, alcoholism and addictions, resolving conflicts in relationships, and inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community.
Friend in need...
Last year, Mithibai College launched a similar peer-support mental health programme called HOPE (Healing Our Peers through Empowerment). It roped in a trauma therapist to train its third-year BA and BCom students over seven sessions through the academic year. This year, they’ve got clinical and counselling psychologists on board too.
The college’s TYBA psychology students also organise Mind Labyrinth, an annual inter-collegiate department festival with themes relating to mental health. A total of 3,000 students across 30 colleges in Mumbai participated in the edition held this January, themed on emotional hygiene.
“The term means being mindful, clearing out negative thoughts and practising positive thinking. Emotional hygiene is as important as maintaining physical health,” says Ramola Thangiah, associate professor and head of the department of psychology, and vice-principal for the faculty of Arts at Mithibai College. The festival featured sessions on dance and movement therapy and animal-assisted therapy.
About the stressors
“Earlier, most students’ anxiety stemmed from stress over academics,” says Thangiah. “Today’s sources include a disconnect with parents, the hyper-competitive job markets that students are preparing to enter, and overuse of social media.”
Mithibai even responded with a self-exploration programme called Swashodh, to help students deal with issues of anxiety, ego management and mindfulness. “Through the academic year, registered students attend sessions conducted by experts where they explore their weaknesses and strengthen their capabilites. In the end, they report the changes in their thoughts, attitude and behaviour,” she says.
Let’s talk about it
As colleges make a conscious effort to promote mental well-being, students, too, are finding encouragement to open up. VG Vaze College in Mulund hosts an annual day-long festival titled Celebrating Life themed on different aspects of mental health. It includes talks, poster exhibitions and games. In the last two editions, students have designed theme-based games like Spin the Wheel and Snakes & Ladders.
On the Snakes & Ladder board, numbers were swapped with traits and feelings like jealousy, anger and compassion. The Spin The Wheel board has arrows pointing at suggestions like ‘Go on walk with a friend’ and ‘Eat healthy meals’.
The posters featured quotes relating to depression and suicide prevention (‘Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise’). Last year, two student speakers even stepped up to the mic and talked about their struggles with depression.
At NMIMS, a team of in-house counsellors also trains faculty and staff members in identifying students who need help. “The counsellors apply research-based psychotherapies that are upgraded from time to time by attending training sessions offered by experts,” says vice-chancellor Rajan Saxena.