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Cougar Health Services offers violence prevention, mental health resources

Exterior of Cougar Health Services building.
Cougar Health Services building

For many people across the country and the WSU system, COVID-19 has increased loneliness and isolation, added stressors to daily life, and exacerbated existing challenges. Those struggling with mental health and gender-based violence may have found that these issues have become particularly acute over the past year.

To empower members of the WSU community to cope with these challenges, Cougar Health Services (CHS) is hosting several online trainings this spring that will teach Cougs to recognize and assist people in crisis.

Creating safe campus environments

Count on Cougs, the CHS Health Promotion team’s violence-prevention program, aims to reduce instances of sexual and gender-based violence at WSU by teaching bystanders to intervene. Nationally, about 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men will experience some kind of sexual assault in college, according to Taylor Ellsworth, health education coordinator for violence prevention programs at CHS, and programs like Count on Cougs are crucial to reducing those numbers.

The program is available to faculty, staff, and students throughout the WSU system and is mandatory for all incoming students. It teaches participants to use the four Ds – direct, delegate, distract, delay – to intervene when they see potentially harmful situations. Although direct intervention is perhaps the most well-known strategy, Ellsworth said the other Ds are equally important.

“Being direct is not always an accessible or safe option for people because there are barriers to actually stepping in,” she said. “The other Ds allow people to have different options if direct intervention isn’t comfortable for them.”

Count on Cougs is relatively new (it replaced the Green Dot program in fall 2020), but Ellsworth has already seen positive outcomes: Program participants can identify sexual violence as both a problem and an institutional priority, and they have acquired a sense of responsibility to act and learned intervention strategies.

Ellsworth is encouraged by these early results and looks forward to further engaging the community in violence prevention.

“I think one of the reasons Count on Cougs is successful is that it’s accessible to everyone,” she said. “We’re really focusing on what people can do collectively to keep their fellow Cougs safe.”

‘It’s okay to feel bad’

In addition to Count on Cougs, CHS has several programs that teach students how to help themselves and others through mental health challenges, including those caused by violence.

“Trauma is such a strong risk factor for all sorts of mental health challenges,” said Nikita Alimohammad, health promotion specialist for mental health and suicide prevention at CHS.

Alimohammad’s team offers Mental Health First Aid, which helps participants assist someone experiencing a mental health crisis, and Campus Connect, a suicide prevention training, are available to all students, staff, and faculty. Other student-specific programs teach resiliency and general life skills, so students can manage mental health issues before they become crises.

Alimohammad said that normalizing mental health challenges has gained traction in recent years, but people still face persistent stigma around mental health.

If you have experienced violence or need mental health support, please reach out. There are a number of resources available:

“I want people to know it’s okay to feel bad,” she said. “We’re trying to get students to not only feel more comfortable talking about their mental health but also seek help.”

Although COVID-19 has limited many programs in the past year, it has had some positive effects: it has opened up the national conversation around mental health, and it has allowed Alimohammad’s team to offer trainings to the entire WSU system.

“Being online is a huge benefit,” she said. “We can offer programs to more people and offer more sessions.”

With the increased access to mental health resources, Alimohammad hopes that more students will continue to prioritize their mental health and seek support when they need it.

“We need to normalize the fact that people are lonely right now and that people are feeling isolated and struggling,” she said. “We have to be comfortable talking about that.”

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