Photo Credit: Marc Studer

By: Zack Nguyen, Joseph Yuen, Savina Sidhu, Zhiyao Song, Salia Sheikh, University of Washington Bothell School of Business

The sun was bright. The class was hot. Light beams from the sun crisscrossed through the sky and penetrated our classroom windows, they quickly raised our class temperature up. We were all thankful for the A.C. Outside of the classroom, the professor rushing through the hallway, ran into the class and hurriedly turned on the computer. The iconic ding of a guest joining our Zoom meeting sounded as the sun blazed against our classroom windows at UW Bothell. Our guest was 10 minutes early. On the screen was Rafi Kahar, in front of a bright background with glowing brown skin, fluffy dark hair and a great physique. As Rafi adjusted his microphone, he began greeting the class in an enthusiastic and bright voice. Rafi, a first-generation college student, is a senior at University of Washington Bothell, majoring in marketing.

Rafi told us, “sharing my own experiences kind of helped me realize how much or how far I’ve come from being a really heavy introvert. My freshmen year I was very quiet, I didn’t really go out to do that much but kind of sharing my experience it’s kind of making me realize that I’ve done a lot. Kind of in that sense it inspires me to continue doing more and giving back to our community.” In his sophomore year at University of Washington Bothell, he decided to step out of his comfort zone and proceeded to be a HERO (Health Educator Reaching Out). As the name suggests, the main goal of a HERO is reaching out to students and spreading awareness regarding mental health for the university students. Being a HERO, he shared, helps him to better assist not only the students at the university, but also his family members as well.  Rafi has a big family with nine siblings and has been able to help them better understanding mental health.

Recently, Rafi was nominated and became the Director of Outreach at ASUWB (UWB’s Student Government) where he promotes mental health resources available to students at UW Bothell. Rafi is always surprised by the unawareness of students about the completely free mental health resources available on the campus. With the goal of spreading positive energy and awareness about mental health, he is committed to contributing to the UW Bothell community. Rafi has conducted a number of workshops to help bring awareness to mental health issues and to help students understand mental health and available resources.

How do you deal with or juggle your mental health, with others people’s mental health weighing on you?

RK: Part of the peer health training that HEROs get makes sure we are in a place where we ourselves are taken care of first. So that as we’re helping other students, we can connect them to resources or guide them through their mental health journey without feeling compromised or struggling ourselves. Having these resources, we can use them so that we can be in a good place to help other people.

How do you set boundaries?

RK: It is always a challenge separating stuff you’re passionate about from your personal life. Setting boundaries is really important to me. I have a hard after 5pm no work policy. I shut off my work laptop and notifications for anything after 5pm and then I resume at 9am or whenever I go back to work. That gives me a good work life balance.

Can you think of any specific ways in which outreach that you’ve done, or that your team has done has impacted students’ mental health in a positive way? 

RK: Yes, so our Vice President actually did a mental health project. As part of her projects, one of them was printing out cards that had positive messages that say: “you are enough” or “you are good enough”, “I hope you have a good day” and on the back of it were links to the resources. The links on the back were about our mental health resources such as the Health and Wellness Center (HAWC). And, because of that project we saw a huge spike of students actually coming into the Health and Wellness Center (HAWC), so it was a very impactful project that she worked on. Part of what I did was actually promoting it, so I did tabling events where I connected with students. Or I just let students leave small notes out on the tables, so students could glance at it or get interested in it and pick it up, then call these resources if they are struggling or seek them out as well, so that was a really impactful project that we did as a team.

Can you tell us more about the workshops you conducted for mental health awareness?

RK: UW Bothell is known to be a commuter campus, so there are not many students on the campus, and this has been a challenge for us when conducting the workshops. Our workshops are anywhere from 5 to 8 students. The frequency of the workshops are around one to two weeks, and we found out that it is really effective when it’s on campus. Due to the high engagement from the participants, our workshops were really impactful. For the workshops, we try to incorporate different interactive elements and create a space where the participants are able to feel safe and let their thoughts out without anyone being judged.  

Do the people who attended a workshop with you guys connect with you guys outside of the workshop? With the students you worked with, did you ever experience or see a change in someone long term wise?

RK: Yes, they do, if they want to get more help, they can connect with us over email. However, we are peer health educators (HERO), we’re not counselors,  we’re there to act as peers to connect them to the right resources. As connectors, we are really trying to help them by creating workshops, a safe place where they can express themselves.

We definitely saw changes long term, so a lot of the students that we saw eventually reached an epiphany when they realized how many resources were available to them. I think one of the huge ones was the counseling office, we have amazing counselors at UW Bothell. The students didn’t know that they could literally just drop in the counseling office and get whatever was boiling up inside of them out, and the counselors could connect them with other resources on campus. So, we definitely saw an improvement in that aspect. 

Many people struggle with their mental health. Covid-19 has been an added stressor increasing rates of depression and anxiety. Students are struggling and yet, many do not know what mental health resources are available. The number of students who experience burnout while in university is high, and it is “one in four adults and one in five children around the world are estimated to be living with a mental health condition” (UWB School of Nursing). Whether you are a university student or not, mental health problems could affect you or your family. Know you are not alone.

As an effort of assisting students on their mental health, NAMI Seattle, a great off-campus resources for student, also shares its resources in the UWB’s counseling center, and the Health and Wellness Center (HAWC). NAMI Seattle offers support for people with mental health conditions and their loved ones. They are also expanding their Spanish language programs. You can support their work at https://namiseattle.org/donate/ .

*This interview has been condensed for content and clarity. Thank you to Ashley, Kayla, and Jennifer for assisting our team on this piece.