Catherine Welch, at right, works with a group of Saint Michael's students in this recent file photo. Their poster reads "The reason I speak is it only takes a minute to remind someone that they are worth it!"
Catherine Welch of the Saint Michael’s College Student Life Office has been named Advisor of the Year for Active Minds, a national nonprofit group that urges students to speak openly about mental health issues in order to remove the stigma and change campus cultures.
She will receive her award in early November at the Active Minds annual national conference in Washington, D.C., Nov. 3-5.
Welch, who is the College’s assistant dean of students and Title IX coordinator, helped launch the campus chapter of Active Minds in 2012, not long after starting an intense six-week class called Student Support Network (SSN) the year before – that class was mostly in response to the 2011 campus death of student Jordan Porco, which prompted Jordan’s family to get active in suicide awareness and prevention initiatives nationwide.
After that first SSN class, Welch remembers, students who had taken it wanted to do more, so Welch told them about Active Minds, and soon, together, they had formed a Saint Michael’s chapter.
Since then, the chapter’s leadership group meets regularly with Welch for guidance on a variety of activities, including “tabling” in the Student Center to distribute information and engage fellow students in conversation on mental health topics; arranging for speakers and panels, running mental health wellness days and “check-ins” with students (with names like “Stress Less Week, “Take Care Thursdays,” “Wellness Wednesdays”) and having service/therapy animals come to campus and visit, particular during stressful times such as Finals Week.
Of all of these programs, Welch said: “It goes such a long way for students to hear from other students …One thing I’ll hear are comments like, ‘I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression, and here’s how I made it work” which takes away the stigma,’ while others are especially excited to hear that message from male students or athletes who might traditionally be less likely to talk about it.”
Active Minds’ national mission statement lays out a purpose of “educating others, encouraging help-seeking, and providing information, leadership opportunities and advocacy training to the next generation.” The St. Mike’s chapter’s mission statement puts it this way: “Mental health. We all have it!” and goes on to mention “empowering our campus community to change perception of mental health issues, reduce the stigma associated with it, and create a comfortable environment for open conversation about the real-life issues that students are facing.” It’s all about “creating an opportunity for students to advocate for something they believe in, raise awareness, and empower other students in this community to make a difference,” that chapter statement says.
Dawn Ellinwood, VP for Student Affairs, said of the news about Welch and her award, “What a tribute to the amazing work she has done with regard to mental health needs on our campus!”
Among those who have taken Welch’s entirely volunteer non-credit Student Support Network class are recent graduates Danny Divis and Justin McKenzie of the men’s hockey team, who won the prestigious national Hockey Humanitarian Award last year based on their work with Hope Happens Here, bringing awareness to mental health issues among athletes.
After learning of her honor, Welch wrote to SSN and Active Minds students who nominated her: “I was quite speechless to receive this …Your kindness and thoughtfulness means more than you know, as I have had more than a few doubts about the impact of my work over the last few years. This is such an amazing reminder of the BEAUTIFUL souls I get to work with each and every day.”
Students in Welch’s SSN class are nominated by staff, faculty or peers, or can self-nominate, and the class meets an hour and a half per week for six weeks, with the first session starting earlier this week for 2017 in the Alliot Vermont Room. At that meeting, the Active Minds leadership team got together with members of the campus veterans group to talk about horticulture and the power of nature in mental health.
The annual “Check-In Day”event in February will be what Welch describes as a “big mental health festival” on campus, and is something Active Minds students help organize. She says the Bergeron Counseling Center has been “a supporting force” for that and other activities in recent years.
Welch said she has attended Active Mind national conferences in previous years with Saint Michael’s students, including in the nation’s capital and in California -- both times being able to bring Active Minds students, with full financial support from the Saint Michael’s Student Association.
“It’s such an honor -- and so unbelievably humbling -- that I would love to receive it in person,” Welch said, “so the hope is for me to attend alongside the students to receive the award."