The Syracuse University Wellness Initiative supports faculty and staff wellness in a variety of ways. In addition to lifestyle change programs such as the virtual Diabetes Prevention Program, the initiative offers activities infusing participants with happiness, gratitude, positivity and mindfulness….
Barnes Center Staff Therapist Helps Students Gain Insight Through Mindfulness
Mansi Brat teaches students how to embrace the present moment and find serenity with one’s thoughts—an often elusive ideal to grasp in the anxieties of today’s perfectionism-driven world.
A staff therapist with the Barnes Center at The Arch and facilitator of the Mindfulness and Self-Compassion Workshop, Brat provides students with the tools to gain peace through mindfulness meditation when stress begins to overwhelm.
“With the way our minds operate, one can spend much time either in the unchangeable past or the imagined future. This results in extremities of anxiety and depression, and we lose sight of precious present moments,” says Brat. “A large part of mindfulness is to acknowledge that life is happening in the moment—the here and now, and bring yourself back to the moment with a kind, compassionate and curious sense of awareness.”
These extraordinary times of a global pandemic and, more recently, the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota have sparked “grief, anger and protests against racial injustice, inequity and marginalization against people of color, particularly black people in America,” Brat says. These can be especially difficult when worries for the future, compounded with being isolated from others, are even more prevalent.
Brat and her therapist colleagues at the Barnes Center provide both mental health counseling for students with a range of concerns during the academic year, “including depression and anxiety, eating disorders, alcohol and substance use, sexual and relationship violence concerns, and, more importantly, empathic listening into how marginalization and racial disparity affect the psychological distress of college students.”
With remote learning and social distancing parameters in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the counseling team observed an increase in worries about the future from students. “The anxiety and depression levels increased, and so did the overarching grief around a myriad of losses, as a result of the pandemic,” Brat says. “The overall stress markers—particularly those of financial needs, job security and equality of education—have also been on a rise, critical to a students’ racial and gender identity.”
Students are encouraged to reach out to counselors if they are feeling distressed in these unprecedented times, with the physical lack of connection between people and communities.
“Most human beings need a sense of community and social connections for a robust psychological wellness,” Brat says. She recommends reaching out to friends and family members virtually or seeking a mental health counselor for support. “Build a network of care for yourself and also be compassionate to family members and others around you.”
With the pandemic, as the University transitioned away from residential instruction, staff therapists were trained in teletherapy to continue to provide services to students through Zoom appointments and sessions over the phone. “It seemed challenging for some students to voice their concerns over the phone, as not all of them have secure, confidential locations to talk,” says Brat.
Brat’s aim is always to provide a safe space of comfort and trust for students, so they can talk about their struggles freely and gain greater clarity and self-awareness into their distress.
“Working with any student, either through Zoom sessions or in person, requires validating what they are feeling, so they really know that I am their ally and here to support,” Brat says. “It’s about listening into their emotions and feelings to understand what exactly they are trying to express underneath the words.”
Brat works with students through a psychodynamic, family systems lens—using multicultural factors and intergenerational trauma as pertinent to one’s healing. Brat also integrates feminist theories and mindfulness-based interventions in her therapy sessions.
By learning mindfulness techniques, students can develop skills to define what they are feeling in their bodies and express what exactly they need to feel better. “It’s a way to bring yourself back to the present moment by waking up in the body,” says Brat, who also teaches a Mindful Communications course through the Department of Communication and Rhetorical Studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Individual counseling with a Barnes Center therapist is one of the steps of the Stepped Care Model approach, which runs throughout the work of the center’s services and resource delivery. It allows for a holistic view of the student—mind, body, spirit and community. In this care model, students can seek out any of the various health and wellness resources available to them through its diverse steps.
“There are a variety of ways for students to access our integrated services,” Brat says. “The Barnes Center website is the starting place for students to find the resources they may need for their holistic wellness. Some examples include individual fitness sessions; Sanvello, the meditation app; the MindSpa; and the Soul Talk series.”
Service delivery within the steps increases as additional support is needed—for example, an appointment with a staff therapist within the counseling team or meeting with a nutritionist through health services.
Students present with unique individual needs. If a student comes to the center with low to mild levels of anxiety, therapists may encourage them to visit the Mind Spa, take a meditation or fitness class, or engage in a workshop, in addition to the initial counseling session.
Students also largely benefit from the 18 group therapy options, which Brat coordinates, including Building Resilience Skills; Gender and Sexuality Affirmative Therapy; Students of Color group; Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies; International Community Voices and a COVID-19 Grief/Loss series.
In the Mindfulness and Self-Compassion Workshop, which Brat facilitates, students are introduced to mindfulness skills to help manage and cope with stress and anxiety. Students also learn to identify painful and difficult emotions and encouraged to work through their feelings from a self-compassion mindset. The seven-week workshop began the week before spring break and transitioned online after remote resources were implemented.
All students meet for an orientation prior to joining the workshop, during which they identify goals that they’d like to implement in their personal lives. “They are not only practicing skills in the workshop, but are also building a practice of mindfulness, meditation and self-compassion in their home environments,” Brat says.
Brat, who grew up in New Delhi, India, and moved to the United States when she was 17, realized her calling to work in counseling early on—her mother was a special educator and is now a psychotherapist and parenting coach, herself. “My mom was the biggest influence for me in wanting to work in the field of mental health,” she says.
Brat earned a bachelor’s in psychology and master’s in clinical mental health counseling at Lindenwood University and a doctorate in counselor education at the University of Toledo, with a research emphasis in mindfulness and self-compassion as wellness interventions for healing psychological distress.
Brat worked at the University of Toledo’s Counseling Center and later at a private practice, becoming a licensed professional counselor. She has trained under Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield, renowned teachers in the Insight (Vipassana) Meditation tradition, and she is also a certified yoga instructor.
Her work at the Barnes Center brings her joy and satisfaction for many reasons. “I feel there is no greater service than that of making a difference in another person’s life,” Brat says. “It’s so humbling to see and feel the energy of the person as they grow and develop in their self-discovery process—finding their own empowered individuality and voice.”
The students are the best part. “They are so lively and charming—they are the future leaders,” Brat says. “I gain so much from them. They are ever-evolving and so creative and vibrant.”