Health Educator Describes MIT Medical Services

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The Tech spoke with Susanna “Zan” Barry, a health educator for MIT Medical, about her role at MIT and how students can stay healthy.
Ana Malagon

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The interview of Susanna Barry, a health educator, in the Aug. 30, 2007 issue of The Tech misprinted the last word of the MIT office Barry works in. It is the Center for Health Promotion and Wellness, not Awareness.

This is the fourth interview in a seven-part series introducing incoming students to some of MIT’s faculty, staff, and student leaders. Today, The Tech interviews Susanna “Zan” Barry, a health educator specializing in emotional health at the Center for Health Promotion and Awareness at MIT Medical.

According to Kristine A. Girard, the associate chief of mental health at MIT Medical, the top health impediments to students’ academic performance reported in 2006 at MIT were stress, minor ailments such as colds, flus, and sore throats, and sleep difficulties, which was typical of those reported at colleges across the nation in the National College Health Assessment rankings. In more severe cases, 23–25 undergraduates and less than 10 graduate students leave MIT each year for medical reasons, and the vast majority of those are for mental health reasons. In this interview, Barry talks about how students can take better care of themselves and make the most of their time at MIT, and what her office can do to help.

The Tech: What’s your main role at MIT?

Susanna Barry: My position is the health educator for stress management and resiliency. I focus on emotional health specifically. Our health educators help students not just survive at MIT but thrive at MIT, [help them] feel better than just getting by. We want them to feel like they’re able to concentrate and focus, and do everything they want to do and have to do, and still feel healthy and take time for themselves.

Under that umbrella of emotional health [are] issues with food and body image for people with eating disorders, and with getting better sleep. Even if they can’t always get the quantity of sleep they need, I help them at least get quality sleep. Sleep is vitally important to mental health.

I teach yoga and relaxation and meditation. There’s good scientific evidence that those are things that help both enhance the brain in the long term and also in the short term, that help people feel more calm more focused and also more productive.

TT: What do you actually do in the course of your day?

SB: An example day might be teaching a course over in [physical education] about mind body health, “Upgrade Your Health and Happiness.” I might teach a yoga class for stress management to a group. I might help facilitate a group, called “Making Peace With Food and Body Image” for women students at MIT with my colleague at MIT Medical, Audra Bartz. I might work with GRT’s [Graduate Resident Tutors] or the RAs [Residential Advisor] to help them figure out a difficult situation in their residence or their hall. I also help students tap all the free resources that are available to them.

I tend to work mostly with the student life and residential life group, to a certain extent the support deans, and I definitely collaborate with our mental health service here at MIT Medical.

TT: What does that mean?

SB: We might collaborate on mental health screenings for campus … if people want to know if they or a friend have anxiety or depression and they’re not sure if they’re just sad or if they’re really depressed, if they’re just nervous, or if they have an anxiety disorder.

I’m also helping the Active Minds group on campus, a new group that promotes mental health awareness, advocacy, and help getting people help.

TT: What advice do you have for incoming freshmen?

SB: If I were to put together an acronym, it would be RAYS, like rays of the sun.

R — research shows that learning a relaxation technique not only helps your brain perform better in the long term, it also has a short term benefit for emotional health.

A — acknowledge what you’re feeling, or even the expression that you perceive someone else having. Even if you can’t make someone else feel better or make yourself feel better right at that moment, just the act of identifying, acknowledging that feeling [has] a therapeutic effect ... on the brain.

Y — yoga, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a yoga teacher! There was a study that shows that yoga raises a couple of key neurochemicals that are in low levels associated with anxiety.

S — sleep. The S is sleep. The S is also soda. There was a study that showed that high school students who drink more soda have more mood problems, so cutting back on soda would be another recommendation that I would have. And if you want help cutting back on soda, [we] can definitely help you figure out how to do that.

TT: What do you think will be the biggest challenges that freshmen will face when they get here?

SB: I think that it’s hard to see all the amazing opportunities that are available here and accept that you can’t do them all the first day that you’re here. You can’t get it all done the first semester. People will want to join every organization that looks interesting to them, and take a million classes, and get involved in a million different activities. There is time to do that over the course of four years here, but it’s hard to put the brakes on, and say, just in my first semester, let me add things slowly one at a time and build my involvement on campus incrementally, rather than just wanting to say yes to everything.

Being able to judiciously say no is an incredible leadership skill that will serve students well for the rest of their lives, and that’s a really important skill to learn.

TT: And what’s the one thing that freshmen should do in their first semester?

SB: My answer, actually, is sleep. New research indicates a much higher risk of health problems for people who get five hours or six hours of sleep as compared to seven hours.

TT: How do people end up at your office?

SB: Sometimes I see people before they go to Mental Health, because they want to [know] what to expect, who to talk to, what they should say to get an appointment, how many people they have to tell their story to. People have questions about what their experience is going to be like, and I can help prepare them. [Or] they [might] want a little extra coaching in some of the relaxation techniques that we’ve been talking about, like meditation, like guided relaxation. I offer relaxation CDs, and there are also a bunch of mp3s that people can download on our Web site.

Relaxation techniques are not just something you do just the night before an exam when you can’t sleep. They’re really useful to do in an incremental way every day, the way you brush your teeth every day.

And people might also come to me if they are concerned about a friend. I often coach someone if they don’t know the right words to say and they don’t know how to begin to approach a sensitive conversation with a friend.

TT: So what is the state of mental health at MIT?

SB: According to our statistics, it’s about the same as it is in other colleges. The thing that I love about the MIT student body is how much they value being distinctive and independent and outspoken and unique. And I think, that is a sign of great health.

But, like any other school, everyone is going to need help at some point in their years here, whether they get that from Mental Health or they get that from any of the huge support network of services that we have at MIT. I think people should not hesitate to use that when they need it. Because that’s why we’re all here.

They have S3, they have MedLinks, they can call Nightline any night of the term, they have the chaplains, they have the people in their residence, and the GRTS and RAs, and the RLAs [Residential Life Advisors] , and their housemasters — this place is incredibly rich with people who care.

Students shouldn’t feel like it’s the equivalent of pulling the fire alarm when they ask for help. That’s one area where I think we could show a little improvement: [students should be able to] get help soon and not have it be such a big deal.

TT: Some students are concerned about confidentiality when they visit MIT Medical.

SB: There is a statement about confidentiality on the student quick links [] on the MIT Medical Web page that communicates a variety of information about our relationship with students and conversations that they share with us. We consider all conversations privileged information and confidential. The position that we take is that we are here to help, not tell on anybody.

TT: So would a conversation with you be confidential?

SB: Since I’m a health educator and not a clinician, I don’t keep a medical record, and I’m someone very low-barrier to talk to. For clinicians, there are strict rules around confidentiality, so even though they keep a medical record, they are unable to release your private medical information to anyone outside of Medical without the student’s permission except when there are concerns about the student’s safety or danger to others.

Conversations with me are private and confidential, unless, as with anyone here [at MIT Medical], someone expresses intention to harm themselves or to harm someone else, or some other risk of that level.

TT: What’s the most common reason that people have for coming to MIT Medical?

SB: The most common [conclusion] is “no cause found.” That kind of implies that people might need to get more sleep and eat more regularly, and take care of their stress.

TT: What’s a new project that you’re working on?

SB: Getting all the trans fats out of our hall study breaks. So we are asking GRTs and RAs to plan menus that have no trans fats in them for student breaks. … You’d be amazed at how many requests students put in for vegetables, fruits, things that they don’t have time to prepare for themselves. So our first goal is getting all the trans fats out. And then more healthy foods, that’s our next goal.

We also want to do more outreach to our campus teams.

TT: Do [athletes] have special needs?

SB: Because athletes are performing at a high level physically as well as cognitively, we want to make sure that they are especially taking care of their food, their sleep, their stress. They’re balancing a lot of demands on their body and their brains.

TT: Anything else you want to say?

SB: I think MIT students are the greatest thing since sliced bread.

TT: Better than students at other places?

SB: By far! They’re so nonconformist. It’s amazing to watch what they do with their gifts … they’re interested in global health, energy, engineering problems, biomedical sciences. I mean, I expect MIT students to be making my future better for the rest of my life!

TT: You said everyone is going to need help at some point. Really? Everyone?

SB: Yes, everybody. Because that’s the nature of life. Life is all about constant recalibration … not just a “set it and forget it” kind of experience. So something that worked well as a way to handle freshman year might not work again sophomore year. Relationships and friendships might change over the course of a year. Important people might go away to study at Cambridge; important people might be unavailable for other reasons.

There will always be constant flux in life. So getting some support from wherever it suits you is vitally important for emotional health. It’s very telling that one of the most healthy things we do as humans is connect and share our stories. And I think that without that, life is really kind of empty and kind of drudgery.

TT: What do you do in your free time?

SB: I love to do yoga. I read and I write. And I like to walk around and explore Boston.

TT: What are you reading right now?

SB: Right now I’m reading a Harvard book — Happier [by Tal Ben-Shahar].

TT: And are you married?

SB: I’m married, and I don’t have kids.

TT: Where were you before you came to MIT?

SB: I worked in project that provided mental health and education support to kids in the Boston public schools. Learned a lot about thinking about mental health issues, in an educational context.

TT: What was the most important thing that you learned there?

SB: That mental health is the same as physical health; that talking about mental health can be stigma free.

TT: Can you elaborate on your background?

SB: A couple of professional development experiences have really informed my approach. One of them is my training in eating disorders and eating concerns, and one would be my training in connection between mind and body health.

TT: How long have you been at MIT?

SB: Four years. The undergrads I started with just graduated in 2007 … so I’ll miss them, but I’m sure the Class of 2011 will be just as fabulous!

Weekday walk-in hours are from 2-4 p.m. at MIT Medical’s Mental Health Service; phone appointments can be made at (617) 253-2916.