Many of the students arriving at AUB's main campus this fall, whether from Beirut, wider Lebanon, or elsewhere, confront challenging circumstances by any measure, from ongoing economic fallout to failing electrical infrastructure. As much as AUB tries to offer a safe and supportive environment for its community, these challenges are still an issue. Add to that the academic pressures and the need to compete in a globalized job market and you have a recipe for stress and other mental health difficulties. This is why AUB is working harder than ever and with visionary direction to change the culture around mental health and make sure the student population has access to a robust network of mental health services.
Among the most powerful antidotes to mental illness is a strong social network. The strong social bonds that form the backbone of Lebanese culture have surely helped the country resist a nationwide descent into depression. For Sarah-Joe Chamate, a clinical psychologist and the new director of AUB's Counseling Center, there is a profound lesson here. “In the coming years, we're going to focus on what we call a community based, or psychosocial based approach," Chamate says. “What we would like to do here at the Counseling Center is to develop a peer-to-peer support system."
This peer-to-peer support system would be part of a first line of defense against mental health issues before they snowball and become less tractable. “It will strengthen students' ties to one another and buffer the impact on specialized services. Most students don't need specialized services." She envisions peer-to-peer support being particularly impactful for vulnerable minority groups, “the LGBTQ community for example, people who've been discriminated against, bullied, harassed."
Another part of this initial defense will be faculty and staff. “We are planning to do a sort of sensitization to the faculty and staff at AUB because the thing is you cannot enjoy good mental health if you are not in a favorable environment. The point is not for faculty nor staff to diagnose anyone. But to look for signs and perhaps offer something very basic like, 'are you okay?' Maybe a professor sees a student looking sad, missing classes, crying in the hallway, and offers a simple, 'how are you doing?' And acts to refer to specialized services when needed."
It's an approach—really a cultural shift—that requires all AUB community members to have, as Chamate puts it, “a basic mental health literacy." To that end, the Faculty of Health and Sciences and Counseling Center are poised to launch an e-course on mental health for freshmen and sophomores.
“So, back in 2020, during the lockdown, several factors prompted us to conceptualize this course," says Joumana Kalot, instructor of public health practice at AUB and co-designer of the course, “the impact of COVID, the deteriorating economic situation, we started to see recurring themes with students, the strains of virtual learning, uncertainty about the future."
The e-course, Mental Health: Student Empowerment and Building Resilience, is supported by the Mastercard Foundation's e-learning initiatives. Among its stated aims are: “To provide first-year students with the knowledge and skills to practice self-care, identify signs and symptoms of common mental health problems," and to provide support for themselves and others.
“We're going to do a focus group with this initial cohort of students to get a sense of how their attitudes and beliefs might have changed after taking the course," Kalot says.
Beyond the e-course and community education initiatives, the AUB Mental Health Council is overseeing several mental health initiatives on campus, including expert panels and informational events. “One thing we've done is to staff the Counseling Center with a psychiatrist so students don't have to go all the way to the medical center. We want to have better coordination between AUBMC and the Center," says Chief of Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at AUBMC and Council Chairperson Dr. Fadi Maalouf.
Like Chamate, he too believes in the power of AUB coming together as community: “I think the solidarity of the community is what has helped people to continue to fight and be productive. In general, though, I would say the social cohesion in Lebanon has been impacted by population exodus. We've lost a lot of family members to immigration. But we're seeing more solidarity among groups who want to try to continue and try to see the light at the end of the tunnel."
If you're a student on campus and you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, don't be afraid to seek help at the Counseling Center. You can meet the counselors and schedule an appointment here: https://www.aub.edu.lb/SAO/Pages/Counseling-Center.aspx