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Expanding the Scope of Mental Health

Therapy dog
From therapy dogs to the arts, there’s a nontraditional side to mental health at Endicott.
By: Erin Hatch


This is the fourth and final story in a series about mental health on the Endicott College campus. Read past stories about mindfulness, the new Wellness Center, and the mental side of movement.

Thanks in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying side effects—including loneliness and grief—the phrase ‘mental health’ is more common than ever before. If there was a bright side to the pandemic, it’s the increased conversations around mental health and heightened awareness about how we take care of ourselves and each other.

“What we’ve seen is an increase in calls from students who recognize and see warning signs in themselves, and they’re asking for our help,” said Kerry Ramsdell, Director of Public Safety and Police. “The ability for our students to recognize some of the ways they’re struggling, and then reach out, has been so positive.”

In this mental health series we’ve shared stories about mindfulness and meditation, medical care and counseling, and the role of exercise on our mindset. But there’s also a nontraditional side to mental health at Endicott.

Giving Back & Getting Involved

Look no further than the Student Engagement offices in Lower Callahan for proof that giving back to the community and getting involved on campus helps maintain a positive outlook.

There are over 50 student clubs and organizations on campus, ranging in focus from academics to hobbies to service, according to Assistant Director of Student Engagement Alyssa Laurenza.

“Getting involved in a student organization is great for a multitude of reasons,” Laurenza said. “It opens up your social network and it gives you the opportunity to meet students from all majors and backgrounds—there is bound to be something that fits your interests where you can find like-minded people to help you unwind from your studies.”

If none of the existing clubs inspire you to get involved, Laurenza also shared that starting a new club is as easy as getting a few other people interested and having a plan.

Another route to meaningful involvement is through the Office of Community Service, which hosts short-term and long-term sustainable volunteer opportunities that connect students with diverse populations across the North Shore.

“Going into my freshman year, I never could’ve expected that attending the first meeting of the Relay for Life Club would eventually lead to the most amazing and fulfilling experiences of my college career, meeting some of my closest friends, as well as the best mentors I could have asked for,” explained James Turgeon ’18.

Senior English major and Student Engagement intern Stephanie Butler pointed out a 2018 study that found people who volunteered regularly experienced an 8.5% increase in mental health and a 4.3% decrease in depression. “Whether it’s taking a walk with senior citizens, collecting toys for children in need to brighten their holidays, or delivering leftover food to a local homeless shelter, our students have been able to see the importance of making a difference through service,” she said.

To get involved, read the Blue Buzz newsletter for information on student organizations and service opportunities; check out the Office of Community Service’s bulletin board in Lower Callahan for upcoming events; or email Director of Community Service Lauri Rawls.

De-Stressing with Therapy Dogs

The Diane M. Halle Library is home to books, study sessions, helpful staff, and furry four-legged visitors.

Since 2018, therapy dogs have been a weekly sight at the library, thanks to the efforts of Coordinator of Library User Services Laurie Souza. An animal lover who appreciates the way her own pets help alleviate anxiety and stress, Souza partnered with nonprofit Dog B.O.N.E.S. to make therapy dogs a more frequent and scheduled part of campus life.

“I wanted students to know that this is their library and that we’re here for them if they ever need help,” Souza said. “The students love the visits. Some engage with the dogs, and others just like to be in their presence. I always ask students if they have any pets, and if they say yes, they take out their phones and start sharing photos with everyone. I can see how much they miss their pets and they’re genuinely happy to talk about them. Also, the visits are a great opportunity for students to meet each other and tell stories.”

Upcoming plans for the library’s therapy dog program include a collaboration with Student Engagement to host a Paws Pajama Party just before Finals Feed. Students can don pajamas, visit with the dogs, then head upstairs to eat. Souza says they’re expecting five dogs to come and they just might be wearing pajamas, too!

Another group on campus also has big plans to harness the healing power of animals. In late 2022, the Department of Public Safety & Police will welcome new members to their ranks—comfort dogs who will work planned shifts along with a specially-trained handler officer. For students struggling with homesickness, loneliness, or depression, these dogs can provide a friendly sense of comfort and unconditional love in situations requiring a gentle mental health-focused approach.

Connecting Through the Arts

In the Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts, you’ll find many creative folks eager to talk about the role of arts in maintaining positive mental health. And, among the beauty and power of the art on exhibit there, it’s easy to see the connection.

“Art and public art exhibitions bring people together,” said Elizabeth Bollenberg, Gallery Director for the Walter J. Manninen Center for the Arts. “It gives a viewing audience a shared experience, coexisting within a shared space while presenting shared messages. There is such a great comfort that can come from the notion of ‘I hear you, I see you, me too.’ It means that you are not alone.”

But Bollenberg also explained that art allows us to look inward as well. “Art provides powerful tools that allow the mind to implore, explore, construct, deconstruct, control, and risk-take. All of this can aid anyone to help find meaning, definition, and a sense of self-reflection.”

“What I see in art is that it normalizes things,” said Dr. Krystal Demaine, an expressive therapies professor. “It puts people in a space of equanimity. Everything else disappears when we’re just making music together, in a drum circle together, or doing expressive arts together. The social and physical engagement and eye contact brings life to our body—engagement in the arts allows for a multi-sensory motor experience that stimulates the central nervous system and improves physical and cognitive health.” 

The expressive arts therapy major is a new one at Endicott, and growing. Junior Amanda Cullen said her experience in the arts therapy major has taught her to spend time on things that bring happiness and solace. “It will prevent stress from bottling up to the point of unproductivity and prevent you from reaching your emotional and academic breaking point. I’ve learned that you can use the fine arts to address repressed feelings that affect you from the inside out, to practice mindfulness or being in the moment, and to express emotions that either can’t be verbally expressed or are hard to express in that way.”

For students looking to get more involved in the arts, senior arts therapy major Alyssa Kurland suggested looking at groups like the Creative Arts Therapy Club or Art Club. “The VPAC is home to a wide variety of clubs supporting interests in visual arts, art therapy, interior architecture, dance, theater, and so much more,” she said.

Cullen advised students that they may find mindfulness “simply bringing in markers or crayons to the art therapy room on the third floor and seeing what you can create. The classrooms are open to anyone throughout the day when classes aren't going on, and can be a private, quiet place to create art.”

Demaine charges anyone interested in exploring their creative side to build a habit of it. “Engage in the arts once a week,” she advised. “Going to a performance or writing a short story, or just going out and collecting leaves on a nature walk or picking flowers to make a bouquet—these are all creative processes that stimulate the senses and the nervous system and play into our mental health. It doesn’t even have to be esthetically beautiful—just something that moves us.”

Whether your goal is to make art, experience it, or something in between, there’s no doubt that a visit to the Manninen Center for the Arts will be a rewarding experience.

“Just being in the presence of these creative expressions is not only nourishing our mental health but also engaging our entire sensory system bringing more calm and peace in the body,” Demaine said. “It’s not just inspiration, it’s going right to our nervous system. It’s why we cry when we watch movies that are said, because it’s a visceral experience of just being there.”