By: Alex Killian – SHEC

In the last instalment of the SHEC Interview Series, we had the opportunity to speak with Pearl Mendonça, the Wellness Education Coordinator at the Student Wellness Education Lower Lounge (SWELL). Here are some of Pearl’s valuable insights on current health issues, important resources, and the future of student health.

Could you speak about your career path and the work you do at McMaster?

I did my undergraduate degree in Social Work here at Mac. During this time, I got involved in Welcome Week activities and then I became a Community Advisor in Residence Life in my last year. This really sparked my interest in student development. After graduation, my second job was with Residence Life at McMaster in a programming role and then as a Residence Manager.

When I left that position, there was an opening in health education and I’ve been here ever since, also completing my Master’s in that period. At the SWELL, one of my main roles is to work with student leaders to inform conversations about health, and support their personal journeys in leadership and wellness.

In your view, what are the most pertinent student health issues?

Recently, there has been increased conversation about mental health, sexual assault/consent, as well as alcohol and substance abuse. These are issues that students often navigate alone because of the social silence that surrounds them. To me, the fact that students do not always have a safe space to ask questions is in itself a health issue.  Students need to know about the different places that they can enter to access whatever support they need.

What most important piece of advice would you give to students about health and lifestyle?

Every student is unique, so I start by asking students to tell me what’s working for them and what’s not. Once there’s a goal, we talk about strategies – but I like to keep it student-directed. I encourage students to get to know different resources, especially peer support services whose volunteers can offer a valuable perspective.

Are there any less widely known health and wellness resources at McMaster available to students that you might recommend?

Student Accessibility Services is an excellent resource for students who are seeking accommodations and ways to navigate their academic careers. The conversation around abilities is often less promoted, but it is crucial that students know about the many services offering support and a more equitable academic environment for everyone.

In addition to formalized services such as SHEC and the Peer Support Line, less formalized peer support avenues are also worth mentioning. For example, the student club COPE is excellent for mental health advocacy, while the Hamilton Mad Students Collective provides lived experience peer support. Lastly, I find a lot of students are asking about mindfulness opportunities. At McMaster, there are faculty-specific professors promoting mindfulness, as well as a space in DBAC where students can go for open meditation or quiet prayer. Open Circle also has programs such as reflection circle or creativity circle.  It’s really worth checking these out!

What challenges do you see in student health from an administrative or social point of view?

There is a tendency for service delivery to be more readily supported than systemic change and advocacy. Systemic change helps look at the root causes and also has the ability to be preventive. The difficulty with systemic change is the length of time that it may take to see results. The delivery is not as quick and that is why you need both: services to address the acute issues, as well as systemic change and education to address underlying causes.

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