Transcript of Beyond the Pandemic, and a look at the PAWS program
Joan Gabel: Without question, this has to have been one of the hardest years in the entire nearly 170-year history of this university, especially and most importantly for our students. The world was turned upside down and we did our very best to support them, but we couldn’t change what was going on in the world around them.
Rick Moore: Welcome to the podcast Top of Mind, Promoting Mental Health at the University of Minnesota. [music] I’m Rick Moore reporting. That was President Joan Gabel giving her assessment of the gravity and heaviness of this past year for college students.
In this episode, we’ll take a brief look at how the University of Minnesota will try to help students after a year of never-ending stressors, the pandemic, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the election, and the aftermath of the election, the trial of Derek Chauvin, and another killing of a Black man by police this time in Brooklyn Center.
Things are also looking brighter for students at the U of M and Minnesotans in general. In February, Gabel announced the launch of her President’s Initiative for Student Mental Health, the system-wide effort dedicated to addressing the student mental health crisis. More and more people are getting vaccines, restrictions are being lifted, and students can look forward to return of in-person instruction this fall.
Building on that positivity, the bulk of this episode, highlights an incredibly successful mental health resource on the Twin Cities Campus, the PAWS program, Pet Away Worry & Stress. Who doesn’t want to talk about dogs and cats and bunnies and an impossibly soft therapy chicken?
Joan: Before the pandemic, we knew that around 40% to 43% of 18 to 24-year-olds had a diagnosed mental health challenge. We have reason to believe that the times we find ourselves in are likely to have exacerbated that statistic. We don’t know how much or by how much, but we’re just assuming that we need to be extra attentive to our student’s well-being right now.
Matt Hanson: It’s been a sustained trauma at different levels for different people I think for a long, long time. That’s the part where I think public health experts are worried about the mental health pandemic to follow.
Rick: That’s Matt Hanson, a psychologist and Interim Director of the Boynton Mental Health Clinic.
Matt: How do we collectively deal with some of this longstanding either capital T traumas or lower T traumas. The lower T traumas are maybe a specific event didn’t happen to you, but you’re embedded in an ecosystem where there’s constant uncertainty and threat or fear of attack or those kinds of things and that’s been happening for a long time.
Rick: Hanson is quick to point out that not all students are dealing with mental health concerns. For some, remote learning has eased social anxieties. For others, online learning wasn’t the first choice, but they’ve adapted well, but for those who have struggled, the university plans to be extra mindful of their needs this coming fall and beyond. Clinical services will be available, the many other mental health resources will be promoted, and faculty and staff will try to foster a healthy return to normal.
Matt: We talked a lot about how we can help faculty and staff whenever the pandemic shifts to how do we provide trauma-informed instruction. Or how do we equip faculty with enough resources so they’re not being tasked to do mental health care in their classrooms, but they’re aware of some of the factors that might be happening that students may feel or not feel comfortable telling them.
That’s always been, I think where faculty have wrestled the most is how do I make sure that I’m delivering a course with integrity, and where expectations are training our students to be effective and educated in this area while being sensitive to their needs. I’ve heard faculty last say, “Well, I don’t want to lower my expectations so far that it just totally becomes something different than what I’m trying to teach, but also being mindful of the fact that students are struggling.”
I do think there’s been a lot of resilience with students that I’ve seen that I’ve just really admired. They’ve struggled too. It’s hard to pinpoint that right now. I think living through the struggle is where resilience comes from. We’re not quite there yet. I think a lot have lived through a lot of things and have developed some resilience and some coping strategies as a result of that and there’s a lot to come based on act that we’re still in this thing, and we’re still trying to figure out how to sort through the aftermath of all the things that have happened this year.
Rick: Gabel points out that given all they’ve been through in 2020, 2021, University of Minnesota students have done remarkably well.
Joan: I think that one of the things our students have shown us is that they are, despite this challenge, unbelievably resilient, resourceful, even gritty that this does not stop them. If it doesn’t stop them, it certainly shouldn’t stop us.
One of the things that I’ve really seen about this community is that no one wants for it to stop us. That our faculty, staff, and students are lining up to try to be a part of the solution, they want to feel better, they want their own wellbeing, but they also want it for each other, they want it for the community. That’s incredibly motivating and frankly, very empowering for those on the frontline, working in this space.
Hannah Coffee: One day, I think it was my sophomore year and it was a Monday and I was just like, “I do not like to do this weekend do all of the school and everything I have to do. I’m very overwhelmed and miserable.” I went to PAWS and Phoenix just like [laughs] consents when people are extra stressed and he just came over and just laid his giant head in my lap and didn’t move for like half an hour, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh. This is incredible.”
Rick: That’s Hannah Coffee, a three-year regular of the U of M is wildly popular program PAWS, Pet Away Worry & Stress. [barking dog] For many students, as well as others in the U of M community, the chance to regularly pets or at least be around a wide stripe of therapy animals is just that incredible.
You really have to attend a PAWS session to appreciate the vibe. Before the doors even open, there’s anticipation, then join excitement as students file into in circle a room full of therapy dogs or a rabbit playground. For the latter, the session is called Happy Hour. Then there are the broad smiles and contented [unintelligible 00:07:48].
Tanya Bailey: I saw all these, this is the power of what animals can do for people.
Rick: PAWS is the brainchild of Tanya Bailey, a licensed clinical social worker, and the PAWS Program Coordinator. Before coming to the U, she had her own nonprofit, a farm-based program in which animals were her co-therapists and co-educators. Not long after she arrived here, Boynton Health was putting on a day-long Cirque De-Stress Event. Bailey was asked to bring some registered therapy animals to see how they would go over and they went over really, really well.
Tanya: Trying to have conversations with other people, there’s all these layers, there’s all of these social niceties and when you’re with any animal, you just don’t have those layers. It’s just an immediate connection.
There is the perception that animals don’t judge, that they really don’t care where you’re at with anything in your life at that particular moment. That perception is really powerful because that is a way for people to feel accepted and to feel like they can just show up and be whoever they are in that moment and they’re going to be part of something as opposed to feeling like they’re an outsider.
Rick: Not long after that Cirque De-Stress event, PAWS was born in November 2013. From the get-go, Bailey has instilled in it a public health approach so that its ongoing and consistent and something students can truly depend on.
Tanya: The very first day, we had 403 people come and I went home that day and I sat there and thought, “I’m in trouble,” because I don’t think we can handle 450 people every session.
Rick: The numbers did level off that first year, but in the surveys, students said they wanted more, more sessions, more locations, more and more and more. Since then, PAWS has grown immensely in both scope and popularity.
In year two, the program expanded to St. Paul, in year three to the West Bank, in year four to RecWell, the next year she added a weekly evening session because of all the student feedback. The array of therapy, animals includes dogs and cats, rabbits, and chickens, even miniature horses.
Tanya: Students, they figure out where they fit. If they come to RecWell on Mondays and that feels like a good fit for them. They have told me that they’ll schedule their classes around making sure they can come to PAWS in the future.
As much as that sounds a little silly, what it also sounds like for me from both a mental health and a public health perspective is that they’re recognizing this as a tool in their toolbox that they need and they are being very conscious about fitting it into their schedule. Just like everything else we have to exercise, we have to eat right, and we have to be mindful about doing those things.
Rick: For Coffee, who graduated in December with a degree in child development, PAWS became a part of her weekly routine pretty much right after her first visit back in 2017. She had heard of the program, but wasn’t sure she was going to like it. Since then she says she just started going all of the time.
Hannah: There’s like PAWS regulars who go to PAWS every week. There are other people that I know my age that I never would have met if we didn’t both go to PAWS all the time. I love all the PAWS people.
It’s nice because it’s not just like-- so most people, I guess in college in classes and stuff are around my age early 20s. Then the people that come to PAWS and bring their animals to PAWS, a lot of them are older, maybe like my parent’s age or older, and it’s nice because then you’re not just spending all your time with 20-year-old’s, to hang out with other people who are other ages too and learn about their lives.
Definitely, I think that I do have a new set of friends that have been really helpful just like throughout the last few years and also, with other things, one dog, Crosby, Crosby’s mom and I both really like reading. We always tell each other what books we’re reading and share that sort of thing. [music]
?Tanya: I’ve had past students who have called our handlers their aunties and uncles, their surrogate aunties and uncles or their surrogate sort of grandparents. I do think we have forgotten this multi-generational way of being in the world. That’s indicative of so many other cultures and yet in the United States we just don’t do that very well. I think that’s also a really powerful piece to the work that happens in PAWS.
I’ve also had another student and I thought, “This have to be the title of my dissertation.” He said, “We initially came for the animals, but we stayed for the people.” I think that is it right there.
Rick: One of the stars of PAWS is Phoenix. The black Great Dane that Coffee mentioned as rescuing her on that challenging Monday years ago. Phoenix has a bachelor of individualized studies focusing on youth studies, special ed and food science, and loves eating snow bedtime and stuff, chew toys among other things. It says so on his trading card, a signature accompaniment for most PAWS animals. You can follow him @phoenixgreatdane.
Phoenix loves PAWS as much as the students and on the way to a sessions [unintelligible 00:13:36] around like the big dog on campus, which of course he is. That’s according to Phoenix’s owner, Alison Galbraith Brown, who has a background as a mental health nurse.
Alison Galbraith Brown: This is our fourth year in the PAWS program [unintelligible 00:13:50] five-years-old now and we absolutely love it. It’s such a great fit for us and the students and mental health and suicide awareness and special needs are the areas that I like to focus on more so than just general hospital visits or nursing home, things like that. It’s been a natural connection for Phoenix too.
Rick: In a recent interview over Zoom, she asked if it was okay if her pets, including the oversized Phoenix could stay in the room with her. That was an easy answer.
Alison: The PAWS program covers so much. We’re through Boynton Health and I guess considered part of the mental health and supportive program that way, but it’s for fun connection. It’s something to just get a break from that ins and outs or time in your dorm room. It’s for students that are missing their animals. It’s for students who never had animals in their lives, but we’d like the opportunity to get to know some.
I feel like I bring a mom component to it as do some of the other PAWS human side of the volunteers. Because most of us are a little older and we can talk to people some ways where maybe they’re missing a parent or they don’t have that close relationship with the parents. I liked that too.
Phoenix is a big goofball and people like his big head to lay in their lap, or they like to ask questions about him. With some, we build long lasting relationships and they will come one week and maybe tell us something that’s going on or coming up that they’re a little stressed about. Then the next week we’ll do a little follow-up, or we won’t, if it’s something they don’t want to talk about and they just want a big head to lay on their lap. “Oh, this is really rewarding to me.”
This is my ideal, as I said, I worked with other animal assisted therapies before, I loved working in mental health and I could clearly see with certain people or certain populations that human to human relationship has really been damaged and there isn’t trust. To be able to offer something that isn’t threatening and just is there and it’s okay wherever it goes is wonderful.
It’s okay if it doesn’t go anywhere, not everybody’s expected to love animals. There’s music options. There’s physical expression options. There’s so many ways that you can help your mental health or make connections, but this is the one that works for me and I don’t think I could be happy or as functional if I didn’t have animals in my life.
Rick: As Bailey has worked to expand PAWS to an optimal people pets petting level, she’s proud of the obvious and not so obvious mental health benefits of the program.
Tanya: It demonstrates to students that the university is willing to be creative and innovative and forward thinking that just like cats trying to live in a dog world, that the aspect of counseling and mental health services that doesn’t fit for everybody. They still believe that there’s a stigma. They also believe oftentimes that what they have is not as bad as somebody else, so they just don’t see their problems being bad enough to go get help.
Then number three is they also worry that by doing that they might be taking away a resource that somebody else who is worse off needs. Those are some really interesting dynamics.
Again, perception is really powerful. If that’s what they’re perceiving, then turning to mental health what is traditional is going to be a little more difficult. When we have the animals present, we’re definitely not doing therapy yet it is absolutely therapeutic. For lack of a better way of saying this, it’s a way of sneaking in mental health through the back door, through something that’s fuzzy and enjoyable to be with. I think students then start to recognize that when they come that they feel better, they don’t really quite know why and at the end of the day that really doesn’t matter.
I do sometimes get notes from students or I hear from them after the fact. I hear from them after they’ve graduated, or I hear from them over the summer.
There are a handful of students who have been very clear that they would not still be on the planet if it hadn’t been for their ability to come to PAWS and for the ability to have that program here on campus, that they were suicidal, that their mental health was that low. They had a plan and they had the means to carry it out, and it was the ability to come and to be with other people who, for whatever reason and however it came out, they realized that they were cared about that they were important.
One death is [unintelligible 00:19:16] and so to know that that there are distinct people who have been able to share with me that this meant that much to them and that’s important, that’s worth it. That’s worth everything right there.
Rick: Thank you for tuning in to Top of Mind, Promoting Mental Health at the University of Minnesota. If you’d like to learn about mental health resources on the Twin Cities Campus, a great landing page is mentalhealth.umn.edu. Please take care of yourself and ask for help if you need it.
This is a production of University Relations at the University of Minnesota.
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