Supporting Students

“Emotional lives are normal lives” says Director of Counseling Meg Colenback. Below, she shares her approach to mental wellness with teens.

It’s not just experience that Meg Colenback brings to Williston in her role as Director of Counseling—although she’s got nearly two decades of it, most recently as a pediatric mental-health practitioner and, before that, a labor and delivery nurse in a Minneapolis trauma center. Despite a career confronting trauma, she also brings a deep sense of optimism. “I can always see a solution to things,” she says. Now in her second year at Williston, Colenback is on a mission to destigmatize mental health with teens, and to provide short-term solutions to help students navigate their busy schedules and manage life’s stresses and anxiety. “Emotional lives are normal lives,” she notes. “Just getting support to understand what’s going on emotionally doesn’t mean something’s wrong. You can come in just once for a bad day. It doesn’t have to be an ongoing intensive thing.”

Colenback and her fellow counselor, Anne Zager, have implemented new measures that follow the Integrated Behavioral Health model, a comprehensive, “wraparound” approach to mental health counseling. The basic idea is to change the focus from weekly sessions to maintaining regular routines and relationships that can help keep kids healthy—even if that means they only see her a few times. Here, Colenback answers some questions about her integrated, student-centered approach to mental health at Williston.

How does your approach differ from a traditional approach?

In some ways it’s similar. We’re using evidence-based research on how to combat certain mental health issues like anxiety and depression. But how it is different is that we’re trying to take a short-term, solution-focused approach, building skills with students, helping them gain insight, giving them psychological education about what’s going on for them in the moment, with the goal of having them not have to come in anymore.

What do you see as some of the biggest issues coming up for teens today?

One of the biggest issues I see is stress and anxiety, and navigating the different demands of students’ lives. This became more complicated during the pandemic. The isolation and uncertainty really fueled stress and anxiety. Helping students understand that they can handle their life, with all the twists, turns, and unknowing, is what I spend much of my time doing.

What is your vision for the counseling services at Williston?

I want to find ways to incorporate mental health support into all areas around campus, and to get faculty the information they need so they can feel like they have “first-touch” skills with students when they notice social or emotional changes. I never want faculty/staff to feel the stress of not knowing what to do. The more we normalize that mental health is part of overall health, something to be talked about and explored, the more our students will understand themselves and be able to manage their emotional lives.

What are some of the ways your office supports students?

We meet one on one with students in our office but are also focused on sharing mental health education around campus. This year, we’ve done trainings with proctors, helping them understand some things they might see in the dorms. We’ve presented in faculty meetings and assemblies. We’ve begun sending out a health and wellness newsletter. We’re currently working with juniors on stress and stress management and working with eighth graders on “Mental Health Mondays.”

What are some important tools for teens to have in caring for their mental health?

One of the most important tools when you’re struggling emotionally is to find sources of support—people you can talk to. We know the longer you keep emotional difficulties in, the more difficult they can feel. Literally just talking about things can be a helpful intervention. And it doesn’t have to be a therapist! Also critical is taking care of your body: sleep, hydration, exercise, and eating.

If there is one habit you could recommend to teens to take care of their mental health, what would it be?

Focus on connection, and work on the self-belief that you can do hard things. Connection is so important to everything we do. I can see the benefit of online communication, but it’s that one-to-one human connection that’s important. Connection is a resilience factory that helps us through hard times.

What do you love most about what you do?

The most beautiful part about working here is we get a whole campus of people who support students. I can work on skills with students in here, and if a student’s ok with it, I can loop a dorm parent in on how to help them in a dorm. Students are getting wraparound support. It’s so powerful. I’m so blessed to be allowed into people’s lives. I felt it when I was a labor and delivery nurse and in this work, too. Just connecting and being a witness to how people grow is a beautiful thing.