12 November 2019: Creating a Culture of Care at Yale-NUS College

By Wisha Jamal

Head of Counselling Mr Goh Zhengqin (left) and Counsellor-in-training Tara Dear. Image provided by Mok Wei Tong.

According to research published by the American Psychological Association, declining mental health is becoming a growing problem on university campuses, with students facing problems such as depression and anxiety. To combat this phenomenon, Yale-NUS Counselling Centre organised a series of workshops aimed at creating a ‘Culture of Care’ around the Yale-NUS College campus.

These workshops, held from 11 September to 16 October 2019, were organised in collaboration with the Dean of Students’ Office’s Wellness Committee, as a part of a larger initiative called Resilience In your College Experience (R.I.C.E), which aims to engage students in discussion and self-reflection on topics contributing to student well-being – including adopting a growth mindset, purposefulness in college, and cultivating optimism.

According to the Head of Counselling, Mr Goh Zhengqin, Yale-NUS students value peer support in times of difficulty as friends are seen as approachable and more easily accessible than a member of staff. Consequently, these workshops focused on equipping students with the skills they needed to support one another.

Mr Goh said, “While we see a number of students in counselling every semester, there are also those who don’t come for counselling even though they may benefit from it. It got me to think about how we could bridge that gap. How can the Counselling Centre shape the College’s mental health landscape, and improve its overall well-being?”

The Culture of Care workshops consisted of 10–14 students per hour-long session. At the end of each session, students were given take-home assignments to practise the skills they learned. The workshops were divided into four sessions which focused on different concepts – self-care, basic counselling skills like active listening (two sessions), and envisioning a caring campus.

Workshop participant Luis Pena (Class of 2023) said, “It’s important to give space to conversations about wellness and community care so that they can make their way into individuals’ minds and eventually make everyone willing and able to take care of themselves and others. I saw this workshop as an opportunity to have a positive impact on the culture that we build as students in this college.”

The first workshop emphasised the importance of self-care as the foundation of a College-wide culture of care; in order to support someone else, one must be able to look after their own well-being.

Mr Goh said, “You know the analogy – if you’re on a plane and there’s turbulence and the mask drops, put the mask on yourself first before you help somebody else.”

The second and third workshops were centred around the teaching of basic counselling skills such as active listening, in order to help students become more effective peer supporters. These two sessions aimed to create a culture of care between individuals, suitemates and friend groups.

The fourth session was about envisioning a caring campus.

About this, Mr Goh said, “How can we spread this? How do we create cultural change so that self-care and caring for one another becomes just a natural part of the life of students at this College?”

In answer to these questions, students and counsellors at the workshops came to the conclusion that creating a culture of care involves creating the right conditions on campus: vulnerability, active listening, using words of affirmation and paying forward support you receive.

Luis said, ”I have talked to people about wellness in dining halls and at parties. This has often transformed a possibly hostile space into an honest and safe space for both others and myself to share our experiences and opinions. I believe if this is done consistently, spaces can be created and reclaimed so that the main expectation on campus is everyone’s well-being.”

The Counselling Centre hopes to expand the scope of these workshops  in future iterations by moving towards a ‘train the trainer model’, after survey feedback collected from participants in this inaugural run was consistently positive. Several students reporting that the experience had impacted them profoundly.

On this, Katrina Beatrice David (Class of 2023) said, “I’ve become much more aware of how I listen to other people. Active listening is really a skill one needs to practise! I’ve also become re-energised and more motivated in my personal goal to be a supportive, empathetic friend and member of the Yale-NUS community.”

In addition to these workshops, there are other mental health resources available on campus. The Counselling Centre is open to all students through prior booking or walk-ins, and can also refer students to external counsellors. Students who are more comfortable approaching peers or need support after office hours can seek help from the two student-run mental health groups on campus: P.S. We Care and Aloe.