Instead of a top-down approach, Catherine Welch leads mental health awareness by walking alongside students in their struggles.
Welch, assistant dean of students and Title IX coordinator at St. Michael’s College, is adviser of the school’s Active Minds program, which promotes conversations around mental health to rid the related stigma. Three weeks ago, she was named the top adviser in the nation.
Welch said last school year was a difficult one for students, who suffered losses of two classmates, a priest, a professor and staff member, in addition to the national climate after the election.
“It was all about walking alongside students and just being there for whatever it is they needed,” she said. “It’s really humbling to know what kind of impact that had on them and that it spurred them to nominate me for the award.”
Welch’s journey with mental health began in 2011 as a graduate student and residence director for a freshmen dorm on campus.
That February, first-year student Jordan Porco died by suicide in Lyons Hall. Welch was the one who found him.
“It was a turning point in my understanding of mental health at the college level,” she said.
She started to wonder what impact she could have on students experiencing the trauma. Realizing she couldn’t have all the answers, she focused on being present.
Stressing the importance of taking care of oneself and others, Welch said she and her fellow students brought the mental health conversation to the forefront.
Welch changed her master’s of education work from secondary education to curriculum and school leadership. She stepped into her current position once completing her coursework in 2013.
Welch touted the school’s Bergeron Wellness Center, which she said is bustling with resources. But the need on campus may even exceed the staff of four full-time counselors, she said.
She, too, started to see a counselor in 2011. Part of ridding the stigma is making it known that seeking help isn’t shameful, she explained. For those who don’t seek help at Bergeron, Active Minds fosters public conversation, too.
In 2016, the group started Fresh Check Day, which encourages students to check-in with their mental health during the spring semester.
Active Minds also hosts monthly “Take Care Thursdays” with interactive activities in the college’s student center and annual events that highlight students’ personal stories of anxiety, depression, sexual harassment, substance abuse and more.
Welch said these are student-run efforts, and she’s just there to provide support for their collective mission.
Her work isn’t always invisible, though. When senior student Jerry Collins died by suicide last September, Welch and her dog visited grieving students and friends at their townhouses.
2015-16 Active Minds co-president Cymantha Rogers used this as an example when nominating Welch for the Active Minds Adviser of the Year Award in August.
“She went above and beyond to make sure we were all right,” Rogers wrote. “She always knew what was the right thing to say or not to say.”
St. Michael’s is one of 434 Active Minds chapters in the nation. As a small liberal arts college in Vermont, the school is making recognizable strides in mental health education, which Rogers said is in large part due to Welch.
Back in 2011, Welch’s first action was starting a Student Support Network, where students are nominated to take a six-week course on mental health topics, offered once a semester.
Sitting in her office with walls plastered with inspirational quotes, Welch said despite the college’s financial woes, Active Minds funding hasn’t been cut.
In 2015, she helped Justin McKenzie and Danny Divis kickstart Hope Happens Here, a mental health advocacy group for student-athletes. Now, the alumni are spreading their mission to high schools and colleges around the region.
Although Welch’s role is technically administrative, she said she’s never thought of it that way.
“In many ways, it’s the students who should be receiving the award alongside me, because I really think of us as a team,” Welch said.
Two Active Minds members will be present next month when Welch receives her award in Washington, D.C., but students past and present say Welch is worthy of the credit.
“She deserves it more than anyone I can imagine,” Rogers said.