Help the People Help the People
You think it’s difficult to access, but it’s not, I promise you. That last shred of reserves, for empathy, for kindness, for being a decent human being, is still within reach. Here’s a little how-to on why helping others matters, and why guiding students to care out loud is rewarding and not nearly as scary as you think. Au contraire: it’s the best tool in the toolbox right now.
I work in college athletics. A lot is going on right now, like all over the damn country people are watching madness unfold in an enormous tournament that has been missing from our lives at this level for two full years, and we are hungry as hell for it. Watching 20-year-olds do their thing (okay, some are like 23 or even 24, because of this Covid-year thing that will be part of our story-problems for a bit longer). It’s pretty exhilarating, and glorious, and so damn welcome.
But there’s more. A high-profile student-athlete, who lead her team to a national championship, died by suicide this month. Last week, a bus filled with a team traveling to campus from competition was in a wreck and most of the team and their coach died. Those were not at my school, but you are so wrong if you underestimate the ripple effect to other student-athletes and other teams. Closer to home, a beloved strength coach’s mom died this week while waiting for a transplant. A few days ago, it was the anniversary of a faculty leader being hit by a car and killed on campus. If I take a hot minute and ask students what are the big stresses, right now, I will get answers like “war”, “inflation”, “gas prices”, “can’t sleep”, “the news is too much”, “housing for next year”, “anxiety”. And most of all, I get “thanks for asking.” Thanks for asking — oh my gosh, we should all be asking each other to check in, because it matters. We are actually kind of remiss if we don’t.
A colleague of mine secured a research grant just before the pandemic, to study how coping ability changes when you have a person to check in with on a regular basis. To me, this is like the buddy-waiting-at-the-gym idea, where if you have a buddy waiting for you, you are far more likely to show up, even if means you then do something difficult. Except in this case, if someone is asking you what is going well and what is not, on the daily, you are better at putting feelings into words, and can better identify what you can control and what you cannot. Spoiler alert (and you can read her research in publication soon): having someone care enough to ask after us is actually a huge step in our belief in our ability to handle the ship-storm we may find ourselves facing.
Fun fact: you cannot make homemade mayonnaise during a thunderstorm, or even when a storm is approaching. I’m not a scientist; I don’t pretend to explain this — something with ions and positive/negative energy. The takeaway is: some things don’t work, and we have to find other ways. Right now, the cumulative weight of keeping a personal operating system running is heavy for the college students (and, tbh, for everyone). Emerging from pandemicky times is hard, especially at the same time as emerging into adulthood — throw in a global conflict, laws being passed marginalizing friends and family members (and maybe even themselves), economic uncertainty, voter suppression, discord, unrest, exhaustion: it is not the party you might remember. College counseling centers are booked rock solid for weeks, insurance makes other providers a pricy option, or completely out of reach, for many (add to the mix: cost of healthcare). And the truth is, not all issues need the support of formalized care. Sometimes you need a bandaid for a cut, not a trip to the E.R. So shout out to peer mental health groups doing Work with a capital “W” — they are creating space for processing feelings, fears, realities. And if the issues warrant, they know the resources to find that kind of support.
We have a little group like this in our department, and back before Covid, a few of us (me, plus some student-athletes) traveled to a mental health summit with other universities in our conference. We outlined how we put this idea together with almost no budget, just some passion and simple objectives: let’s talk about stuff before it gets too crappy to talk about, let’s support our injured friends, let’s get to know resources on campus. Here’s the thing: by the time a student comes to you and says they have an issue, or are worried about a teammate, their whole team already knows. So teach them the tools, guide, support, ask, listen, show up, then show up some more. I have a post-it note on my computer that says “responsiveness as a measure of commitment”, and that’s the whole deal. If you’re in it, you are in it 100%, and any success is measured by students asking for more.
What kind of tools? Well, make things less scary. We had a campus police officer come talk to us about what happens if you call for assistance for a friend — what their training is, how they de-escalate. We had a counselor walk through what happens in an intake appointment at the counseling center. We toured all the campus buildings with a facilities person, to find the elevators and the accessible entrances to help our friends newly on crutches (some campus buildings are historic, so this is more of a scavenger hunt than you might think). We asked a professor in the Clinical Psychology program to teach us about open-ended questions, and empathy, and multi-culturalism. We did a zillion ice-breakers around trust-building. We learned about CARE teams and BIT teams, and duty-to-report parameters, and understood our campus better as a safe place to learn and grow. We learned about self-care and meditation and visited a labyrinth. We signed up to eat lunch or dinner with injured athletes not traveling with their teams and feeling left behind (and carry their tray in the cafeteria if they are on crutches and their teammates are all away competing). We learned to walk beside each other. We found out we don’t have all the answers, but we know where to look for them, and that is powerful and less scary than no-idea-where-to-begin.
Mental health and wellness is like brushing your teeth — you need to pay attention to it every day; you cannot do it once and check it off the list forever. Some days, it all comes together and you are firing on all pistons and are an unstoppable force of creativity and smarts and charm. But some days, that just will not emulsify, will not come together, and you need your people even more. Forming group.me text chains for check-ins, using the NotOK app, high fives in the hallways, going for a run or an ice cream or laughing at animal videos… all are exponentially improved when shared. We are awesome at team-building (we are in Athletics after all) but sometimes we get defined by a mental toughness message that doesn’t leave room for all the aspects of being human; we are tough, and human. Both/and — not either/or.
In the end, college students are so astounding — they will blow your hair back. On top of everything else, they are creating change, systemically, globally, quietly, steadily, deliberately. Just recently, college students invented a solar-powered food hydration system that will extend the life of perishable foods in order to get them to market in a supply-chain crunch, and an app that will match Ukrainian refugees with shelters all around the world (and already has over a million users offering rooms in their homes). So many fresh ideas and creative solutions, and belief that situations can and will improve. When things get a little muddy for them, and the distance between thinking and doing seems cavernous, teaching them to help each other seems like a good investment in everyone’s future. Plus, and this is the important part, it normalizes the roller-coaster of the human experience, and the importance of supportive environments. There is zero downside. They will outgrow this campus life, but leave here better prepared to operate in a bigger, more complex community, and that is not on the diploma or resume but it is the lasting impact of caring about each other — it is their measure of commitment to being a decent human even in a chaotic world.