WTCS Voices: Supporting Student Mental Health

Lyndin Atkielski (NWTC) Celeste Sangster (SWTC)

Lyndin Atkielski (NWTC) and Celeste Sangster (SWTC)

Below is an abbreviated transcript of the recorded interview with Lyndin Atkielski from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and Celeste Sangster from Southwest Wisconsin Technical College. This article is a 10-minute read.

COLLEN LARSEN, HOST: This is WTCS  Voices. I’m Colleen Larsen.

A World Health Organization study has reported that the prevalence of mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression has increased by 25% worldwide since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Students, both secondary and postsecondary, have been disproportionately impacted by these challenges and are experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis. In today’s WTCS Voices conversation, we are discussing mental health supports and opportunities and the importance of including student voices in this work.

I am joined by two WTCS students, Lyndin Atkielski from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College and Celeste Sangster from Southwest Wisconsin Technical College. Lyndin and Celeste, welcome to WTCS Voices.

Lyndin, let’s go to you first. Could you just tell us your name, college, program and then a little bit about how you got started in leadership around mental health on your campus?


LYNDIN ATKIELSKI: Yeah, of course. So my name is Lyndin. I go to NWTC. I’m in the Human Services program. My pronouns are they/them, and vi/vir/virs. And I got into leadership around mental health specifically because I started in Student Senate, our kind of government at school, and then met you. And then before I started school in the Spring of ‘21, I needed to make sure that the disability services [would allow me] to go to college basically and not struggle as hard. Like to basically have the same experiences as another student that’s not so mentally ill. And I think it was really important for me to have a voice because it’s something that I know a lot of my fellow students deal with, but we’re not really going to talk about it. And so I think that’s why I really like talking about it. And I really like being a voice for them.

LARSEN: Thank you Lyndin. Celeste, what about you?

CELESTE SANGSTER: Yes. Hi everyone, my name is Celeste. I go by she/her/hers pronouns. I am at Southwest Wisconsin Technical College. And right now I’m studying nonprofit leadership. When I moved here in the fall from Michigan, I immediately signed up for Student Senate and ended up being voted in as President of the Senate. I was doing a lot of work with my officer team on its sponsoring and promoting online mental health services at our school and that kind of domino affected into a bunch of different speaking events and presentations that I had the opportunity to give and share my voice with other students as well as faculty and staff of my school. [I’m] just trying to be a really solid advocate for my fellow students who may not be as open and comfortable speaking about it. So that’s kind of how I ended up here. Just being open about my experiences and really advocating for support services for students who may not be as outgoing or vocal about their struggles.

Importance of Student Voice in Mental Health Conversations

LARSEN: Yeah, that’s a really good point that kind of you’re representing other students also and yourself when you’re sharing your experiences, could you say a little bit more about why it’s important for colleges to especially include student voice in conversations on mental health? Celeste.

SANGSTER: Yeah. So perspective is absolutely everything. If you’re serving students and you’re trying to help students, it’s probably a good idea to include students in the conversation. I’ll go ahead and use the analogy of if you’re running a restaurant and you want to add vegan items to the menu, you might want to talk to some vegans and see, you know, what their preferences are and how all that works. So especially in school or other programs, activities, events that involve students, it can be really empowering for us and for the staff to create a more well-rounded perspective in team when it comes to things like this. And we’re able to open more lines of communication between us and really share our differences and bond over that, and then be able to reach some effective solutions, and not what you know older generations might perceive as effective solutions, if that makes sense.

LARSEN: Yeah, definitely.

ATKIELSKI: Yeah, it does. I was just going to continue after Celeste and say, she did a wonderful job answering that question. There’s not a lot that I can add. But I know that there are faculty and staff that I’ve met with, they just don’t know what’s going on, and they’re not in touch as they think they are with students. I know I spoke to someone else that was in the community about a different topic and he was like, I didn’t even know this existed. And I was like, I can name like 50 people who this impacts right now. And of course they are all our age and things are different for us, especially when we started this off when we talked about COVID. You know it does affect us differently. So I think that’s another reason why we really need students when we talk about mental health for students and we talk about mental health for the college.

How Colleges Are Supporting Students’ Mental Health

LARSEN: Yeah, that’s such a good point and it can see how that would be even extrapolated to other services on campus. So what do you think that your colleges are doing right now to be able to support mental health that’s working?

ATKIELSKI: So right now at NWTC, one of my biggest disabilities that we work on is my mental health issues. So unfortunately to get disability services you need documentation from it, outside documentation. But once you do have that, this is really a case by case on whatever you need and your classes. So for me sometimes, unironically, every eight weeks I just have a breakdown and it’s like clockwork. So, once during my classes I usually end up asking for an extension because I just, you know, mentally I can’t do schoolwork the way that another student can. And then there’s there are some other things, like when I when I read, if I’m stressed out, it’s like I have dyslexia. So I have access to screen readers that I download and then they also offered me screen readers that I could use for Microsoft Word, for example, that was giving me a really hard time. We have a bunch of counselors and they all work at the school or remotely and all the students are welcome to have I want to say at least 10 sessions with them for free just for being a student. So we have that for any students, you don’t need to have anything documented for that. And that’s right on campus. And I think another thing that we do really well for students is we have a lot of faculty check on students in general, and understand that at the end of the semester when everybody is exhausted, they acknowledge that and they take that into consideration. And I think that’s really nice.

SANGSTER: Yeah and I was going to say a few similar things. I feel like more and more colleges and institutions are you know, gearing towards having counselors onsite. I know that we have a counselor. One of our problems earlier this semester is that we only had an on-campus counselor who wasn’t as easily accessible to our online students or out-of-state students. So we were lucky enough to be able to add an online counseling service that’s open to all students, no matter what state they might reside in. So, I think there’s a really great step my college has made towards improving services. And similar to what, Lyndin, you had said, during finals week or the end of the semester, they’re pretty good at recognizing that and setting up some accommodations and some stress relieving events and activities and extra support. I also noticed in my school, in particular, we’ve been working towards more student groups and more long-term student groups and even scoping out places on campus where students can go to wind down and destress and be in a, you know dim, cool, calming sensory area. So I think that’s a really great step that we’re also doing. I know that colleges are also taking it to faculty and working with faculty on educating on student mental health so that our teachers are more aware, which is something else I think is really important.

ATKIELSKI: Yeah, I wanted to add to that too, at our recent Senate meeting, we were going through budget and things like that. And when I first went to NWTC, I noticed it was just already there. So they’ve actually already done this prior to me. We have a lot of comfortable areas that you can just go sit down in. There’s outlets there, there’s computers there. If you are on college campus and you are stressed out, there is a place to go that you can be alone or there’s a place to go and be with friends and be like I need to calm down. I went to go to bingo once and I had my service dog with me and I just couldn’t find who was running the bingo and I had a friend with me and I was like, “I just need to sit down. I’m panicking. This is too much.” And I did not have to walk far. We just sat down in the comfiest chairs, calmed down and figured out what you do from there. And I also wanted to add that our college does do activities towards the more stressful point. It’s something that we tend to do almost every finals week is we have the therapy dogs there. So everybody loves that. We usually have free food either on the same day or like on days close to it. So I think that’s really nice. We do that for students around the times that even people who aren’t actually mentally ill are going to be experiencing extra exhaustion and burnt out.

Opportunities for Further Supporting Students’ Mental Health

LARSEN: Wow, it sounds like both of your colleges are doing quite a bit, and I think that’s probably representative of many colleges in the System. But what opportunities do you see for what colleges in general could do better to be able to support student mental health?

SANGSTER: I think this podcast that we’re on right now is a great start in including student voices more and incorporating that into the conversation. I feel like still some colleges and institutions are, in general, I wouldn’t say fearful, but aren’t as used to giving young people the floor as often. I think a step in that is communicating with faculty and letting them know that finals week is extra stress and extra burden. But throughout the whole semester, people and students all have their own circumstances that they might not want to share. They have all their personal issues and things that could be going on in the family. There’s usually always something going on and teachers aren’t fully aware of all the extracurriculars and all the work and if they work a stressful job. I had one class that was really good at doing this, of making comfortable and safe space for students to share some of their circumstances so that the teachers and instructors are more aware. So for example, I would go to my instructor and say, ‘hey, I have bipolar disorder and some weeks are a lot better than others and I try my best to communicate with that. But it’s just something that’s going on. I’m also struggling with adjustment disorder after moving out. So those are just a few things.’ Having that communication is really important. So, and it’s a two-way thing. The students knowing that it’s safe and the instructors making a safe environment. I think that’s one of my biggest things is opening up that communication, making sure that all students are included in that conversation: online students, out of state students all have access to the same resources. All have that safe space. I think that’s really important.

ATKIELSKI: I agree with the having the place to communicate with instructors. I know that with my disability services, I can just tell my disability advisor, ‘this is what’s going on’ and then she’ll go talk to my instructors. But sometimes I want to actually talk to my instructors so I get better feedback that they know what’s going on because like Celeste said, I know that there’s a certain way that stuff comes off that says like, ‘hey, I have really bad reading challenges. Like, I’m not just asking for an extension because I didn’t do it. Like I generally, I’m staring at the screen and I just can’t do it. And I know other students can do that.’ And then something that I did notice that Celeste touched on is usually one of our first assignments, (I’m a fully online student.) is to post on the discussion board like a little about me. And there are so many students that are handling multiple things. Like it’s really different from what I envisioned the college would be like. And I know that some of the differences between a technical college and a university. We have students that are parents that have jobs. Students that have multiple pets. I just did a group project with someone who has kids, pets, husband, and still was managing her time really well to get her grades. So I think to be in touch with our individual instructors to have a bigger lane and better space to talk to them, that would be really great. It’s something that also kind of really disappoints me about NWTC is that for the disability services, and that includes mental health, you need it documented from outside. And those are just resources that, like, not a lot of people have either time to access, the money to access, or the insurance to access. And so we have people that aren’t going to get accommodations and you have to work harder and not smarter. And that was one of the things that I was worried about is that I don’t want to be working twice as hard as a regular student and have a same grade as them, or I don’t want to have to give up what my goals are just because I don’t have accommodations that other students do. So it makes it really sad to think about the fact that you do have to have documentation outside for some of those services. But I would be interested to hear about what individual instructors do when a student who is struggling and doesn’t have a [documented] disability and an advisor reaches out to them. But I know that’s one of the biggest things that I really wish that NWTC would change.

SANGSTER: Yeah, I’m just going to add a quick example to that. I’m an out of state student, so I’m not from Wisconsin. I’m from Michigan. And so my health insurance has been super wacky. I can’t even have like a phone call or a video call with my doctor while I’m in this state. So if I had a disability and I needed that documentation, it would be incredibly difficult for me to arrange to get that from here to there because right now, it’s already hard enough, you know, having to go back, drive 8 hours to Michigan just to get a checkup at the dentist or get my medications refilled. So I can’t imagine having a disability and having to go through that process here to get help at your school.

ATKIELSKI: Yeah, another example is my therapist is not going to work on my insurance, so I have to find a new one. And in between then, my disability advisor prefers to have documentation about, like, ‘hey, unfortunately, Lyndin is like suicidal, so they need an extension.’ And I’m worried about what if I can’t provide that documentation, and there’s been times when my therapist disagreed with me on what accommodations I could have. And so it just felt like there was just extra barriers. And I’m already struggling. It’s just so hard to go through all those extra barriers. So I love the idea that Celeste’s school has that for people, that you don’t need documentation, you don’t need insurance.

Importance of Starting the Conversation

LARSEN: You bring up a really good point for colleges to think about, which is some of the barriers that might be in place for students around getting documentation, especially in different situations and the extra stress at that might bring into their lives. So I hope that colleges listening to this podcast will be thinking through some great ideas to be able to support you all and other students that are having that challenge. So just to wrap up, I guess I’ll end with the question of is there anything else that you want to share on this podcast with the WTCS community about mental health?

ATKIELSKI: I want to start. You’re definitely able to succeed if you’re a mentally ill student and you have physical disabilities. There are paths like, we just discussed they could be better, but you can do it. I have a high GPA that I’m super proud of and I still have multiple challenges, multiple accommodations. We have to go through every semester to reset up my accommodations, but it still lets me be one of the best students that I can be, compared to a student that’s like not struggling mentally or like isn’t deaf. And I have a friend that has similar diagnoses and went to one of the universities, and their college had almost no resources and when he got into an episode, it was an awful experience. So every time that I go and tell him, you know what my school is doing for me, what we have available for the students, he’s always like, ‘I wish that that was my experience.’ I wish that could be his experience too. So I just want students to know that. You know, I want you to reach out because you can be successful and you shouldn’t be working harder than another student that it has different struggles that you. So that’s just what I want to add.

SANGSTER: Yeah. And I think one of my biggest beliefs is if you’re comfortable and if you feel safe, to use your voice and speak out and not normalize it in a sense, but open the conversation. I found that if I’m talking to a group of people and I mention a struggle, they are a lot more likely to relate and to share as well. And it’s almost like a relief knowing that you have somebody to relate to. So I really do try my best to be really open. And even on social media, I know that some people have, like a ‘friends only’ page where they put some of their personal stuff. But I really try to keep it open to everybody, and I think it’s not just for students. I think that teachers and faculty and staff and administration can also be open and honest and have that conversation. I don’t think it’s just a student thing. It gives people an understanding of what the people around them are going through, and it’s a lot easier to maintain that communication. So just being really open, if you feel safe and if you feel comfortable. And opening that conversation and making it known and helping other people along the way, that’s something that’s really important to me.

ATKIELSKI: Yeah, I that’s important to me. Our advisor disclosed to us that she also has mental health issues and it’s really nice to know that there are faculty members that are struggling with the same thing we have, and it just makes you feel safer. It makes you feel like this isn’t something that I’m going through alone. And I think Celeste is right on it when she mentions that. To have those safe spaces and to have spaces where students and faculty feel comfortable using their voice when talking about this because it is something that we know exists but we’re not talking enough about it. And so I like this podcast as a start.

LARSEN: Yes, thank you both very much for sharing all of your great insights and perspective. We certainly thank you for sharing your voices on the podcast today and also for all of your leadership at your college and Systemwide around bringing the topic of mental health to the forefront. Thank you both.

SANGSTER: Yes, thank you so much for inviting us on. It really does mean a lot.

ATKIELSKI: Yeah, I had a great time.