By the students of the University of Washington Bothell: Shan Carpenter, Jeehay Kim, James Lewinski, Austin Pham, Nishadhi Wijeratne
Despite the coolness of the twilight air and the natural coldness of Zoom, the soul was soothed from the deep warmth that emanated from the amiable smile of Erin McFeely. Her rosy cheeks and mellow expressions were complemented by her soft-spoken words and her kind nature, which were all further accentuated by the decorations sitting comfortably along her wall.
Behind McFeely, a large painting can be seen filling almost half of the wall. Painted by and gifted from her sister, the painting portrays Erin’s love for art and her devotion for family and connection. Decorating her bookcase are animal-shaped bookends given by her grandmother and a photo frame of her great-great-grandmother. Every single artifact softly flowed with sincere history and fondness that could be felt through a screen.
Erin McFeely is a UW Bothell alumna from the Master of Education program, and she also works on the campus as a transfer advisor in the Office of Admissions. She has been with UW Bothell for two and a half years but has been working with transfer students for over 14 years. For the past 7.5 years, she’s been working with students from various community colleges who want to get straight into their majors. McFeely graduated with her master of education in 2021, so she is familiar with many aspects of online education. She says: “[Online learning] was different, but it was a great experience, and I got a lot out of it.” She absolutely loves the communities that UW Bothell offers, including Learning Communities for faculty and staff to co-learn about different topics. She has been exploring art therapy with the behavioral health learning community and hopes to bring more student art to the halls of UW Bothell.
What sort of communities at UW Bothell are the ones that are helpful to you now that interactions are limited due to Covid-19?
EM: I was used to being in a work environment where I met with people in-person every day and did one-on-one advising appointments. Then, for more than two years, everything has been virtual. That kind of takes a toll on your mental health and provides a different level of stress: chronic stress. I really believe that we’re going through a collective trauma right now, and so I really have started to see not only the emotional toll on myself but the people around me.
So, the community that I participate in is my master of education cohort. There were about 30 students, and it was a one-year program. We all went through the same process together, and having that kind of community during this pandemic and that many people that I got to know was something that gave me a lifeline because I really needed it. I just felt that lack of social interaction.
The other community that’s played a big part in my professional development is the Community of Professional Advisors. [They] range from admissions advisors, financial aid advisors, academic advisors, career advisors, and we have advisors that work in our Disability Resource Center. We get together about once a month to bring up issues that are happening in our workplace and things that we feel passionate about, like learning more about trauma-informed practices. That means our policies should serve students where they’re at. They shouldn’t have to prove that they’re going through hardship to request a withdrawal from a class. People are facing challenging times right now, and if we can come from a place and a position of trauma-informed learning and policies, those are policies that best serve students, and that’s what I’m passionate about.
Is there a personal connection you have with the mental health learning community, or is it more that you feel an almost obligation to just be there for everyone or anyone?
EM: I happen to be a military spouse. My husband, Anthony, has been in the Navy for sixteen years. In 2020, he was deployed for 10 months, and in 2021, he was deployed for six months. Because I don’t have any children, I was often alone during this pandemic, and I just felt really isolated, lonely, and depressed. So, I decided to get involved in this mental health community rather than just withdrawing, isolating, numbing feelings, or not wanting to talk about my feelings. I wanted to learn more. I wanted to do more. The really cool thing about this community is that it meets once a month. We all present on different topics [related to behavioral health], topics that we’re personally interested in. We share it out to the group spaces.
We also got to visit the UW Friday Harbor Lab. We go there once a year as the mental health learning community and spend time together. The Friday Harbor Lab is unique and has access to many magnificent trails and island views, and there’s even a place where you can reserve a place to stay. They also do a lot of research projects for students who are studying wildlife and marine science and things like that. So, that was just another great way for me to see another resource that the UW system has to offer and to be able to talk about it with other students.
What prompted you to engage with the foundation NAMI Seattle?
EM: Laura [Umetsu] is [a very active volunteer and] part of our mental health learning community. She’s been sharing some of her work with NAMI Seattle and how it relates to art. I recently gave a presentation to the mental health learning community, and it was focused on art therapy and the benefits it brings to people. I noticed in my workplace that people just seemed to be, quite frankly, depressed and anxious. They seemed like they were going through higher levels of stress and burnout than I had ever seen before at my workplace, and I really started researching art therapy as a way to provide a space for my coworkers to find relief from stress.
So, I organized this as a meet-up space on Wednesdays for 30 to 45 minutes, where we would just work on a piece of art. I don’t know what everyone else’s experience has been during the pandemic, but I felt a very human calling to show up for the people I care about and work with. Creating these spaces for art therapy was one of the only ways that I felt a release from the daily chronic stress that’s been going on for so long—and you don’t have to be good at art. You don’t have to be able to make something extraordinary to enjoy the benefits of art therapy. All you have to do is just sit down and let your hands do the work and put pen to paper or whatever medium you’re using, and it was one of the ways that I noticed an actual reduction in stress.
What sort of insight can you provide on art therapy? How can it heal or remedy mental stress?
EM: You can actually start experiencing the benefits of art therapy within just 30 minutes, and it doesn’t rely on your level of skill. What I’ve personally found is that it provides a level of being able to detach from your current situation and just focus on something purely creative, so you’re not tasked with doing a project in a certain way or by creating a specific design, or being taught by someone who’s a professional at art. It’s just simply creating a space to express your emotions and get more comfortable with them. Art is something that we all naturally want to share with each other and talk about. Oftentimes, when we hold up a piece of art, we might feel more open to actually talking about our feelings. It goes from feeling, like a touchy-feely space, to feeling like I can share this piece of art and what it means to me and what emotions I uncovered.
To create a therapeutic space like that—anyone can do it. What I found was when I started my master of education program, I went into it with the attitude that I just wanted to learn more about the profession that I’ve been a part of for so many years, and I knew there was so much more information out there for me to explore and dive into. As I did that work, I really uncovered a lot of new pieces of myself, including finding my own voice again. Finding the agency to be able to speak out and use my voice to talk about issues that I care about, like mental health, takes a lot of courage and bravery. All of us can access within ourselves to find the agency and use our voice to talk about issues that we care about.
When you refer to art therapy, are you referring to drawings on paper, or does art therapy have a wider range, like music?
EM: So, art therapy can take the dynamics of so many different art pieces. It’s something that I wanted to introduce to our learning community to see if I could access and tap into my resources here within UW Bothell and actually know if we can bring more significant art projects to our campus. When I walk on the campus of UW Bothell, I want to see our students reflected in all of those spaces. Art therapy applies no rules to the medium that you use. It can be pencils, watercolors, mixed media art, or even ceramics. When you tap into art as therapy, you just simply want a space where you can express your emotions, and that’s the only thing that you’re working towards.
Erin McFeely makes it clear that she is not a medical professional, but she is constantly doing more and more research on the effects that art therapy has on mental illness. She highly recommends the book Essential Art Therapy Exercises written by Leah Guzman, as it was what introduced her to the world of art therapy when she needed it the most. She is willing to help in any way possible so people with mental illnesses feel comfortable getting help if and when they need it. She is saddened by how stigmatized mental illness is and that people don’t reach out for help because of stigma. She says a large part of her goal is “showing that we all have mental health concerns and issues and it’s OK to talk about them. It’s OK to seek out professional help. Reducing that stigma is something that’s really important to me because as you meet with those professionals, as you meet with those people that have spent years studying, they are in touch with techniques, diagnosis, and clinical information that we don’t have access to or are even familiar with. So it’s really being able to say ‘I’m OK with asking for help’. That’s a big step.”
NAMI Seattle offers support, education, and outreach methods to assist communities and individuals through the impact of mental illness. One method of support that NAMI Seattle provides is the ability for schools to request trained presenters to visit their campus through the Ending The Silence program and give an insight into mental illness: their symptoms, warning signs, and how best to support someone who is diagnosed.
This article is a collaborative piece created by a group of University of Washington Bothell School of Business students from Professor Laura Umetsu’s Business Writing course. We would also like to thank Jasmine Bager (email) and Laura Umetsu (email) for their assistance. Their suggestions, advice, and support were invaluable and instrumental in bringing Erin McFeely’s interview to life.