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Stress balls and other items in mental health kits can help students cope with pressure and anxiety.

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For the past three years, Martez Files, a professor of African American studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has created mental health kits for struggling students. What started as an effort to give back to the school district he grew up in, Birmingham City Schools, has grown into a full-scale operation involving student volunteers committed to distributing the kits on campus and to public schools throughout the state.

Files got the idea after he went through his own mental health crisis at the start of his Ph.D. program in 2017. A woman from the community gave him a gift of crystals, incense and tea to help ease his anxiety and stress. Then Files, a member of Alabama’s Protection and Advocacy for Individuals With Mental Illness advisory council, started researching how different items such as essential oils and stress balls could benefit those with mental health needs.

“I realized that these items are actually grounding tools that truly can help folks and can make a difference,” Files said. “And I just woke up one day and I said, ‘Oh, I want to do this for Birmingham City Schools,’ and it picked up steam in my community and folks wanted to support it financially. The first initiative was very successful.”

In 2019 he provided about 400 mental health kits to students in Birmingham City Schools. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Files said, he saw an even greater need to help students struggling with depression, anxiety and isolation. Last year he partnered with the UAB School of Education’s GEAR UP Alabama program, which is designed to help local students graduate high school and enroll and succeed in college. Through the partnership, he has delivered more than 1,000 mental health kits to 42 rural Alabama schools.

“I had to think about what it means for someone to be experiencing a crisis … to have something at their home that they can touch, feel, see, smell, hear, that will help ground and center them and kind of be there for them in times of crisis,” Files said. “And the truth is, I really wanted those students who are most affected by systems of oppression and who are most marginalized in our society to feel like someone is thinking about them.”

The content of the kits varies, depending on what people donate, Files said. Most include handwritten note cards with messages such as “You can make it” and “You can be anything that you put your mind to.” The kits also include a list of state and local mental health resources, as well as some combination of teas, honey, essential oils, stress balls, fidget spinners, journals, pens and stuffed animals.

This year, Files said he also plans to deliver kits to each of the 12 juvenile detention centers in the state.

Students on UAB’s campus have been handing out mental health kits, too. The campus chapter of Active Minds, a national mental health organization, created a subscription service for mental health kits last year. For $15 a month or $30 for the whole semester, students receive a monthly mental health kit focused on a different theme, said Ritika Samant, a junior studying neuroscience and president of UAB’s Active Minds chapter. February’s, for instance, which coincided with National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, featured a resource packet, motivational stickers and a jump rope. October’s focused on using art to support mental health and included coloring books and mini easels.

Samant said such items give students an opportunity to slow down and soothe themselves.

“I think the little delights in life had the biggest impact,” Samant said. “So when it comes to just fluffy socks, or, like, a self-care kit, that’s an opportunity for students to just have those things and say, ‘I don’t have to study for a test tomorrow, let me go through this thing I’m feeling’ and bust out the coloring book … Something as little as that can sometimes just calm somebody down a lot.”

Laura Horne, chief program officer of Active Minds, said that because many students don’t know where to seek help for mental health issues, the kits can help start breaking down barriers to accessing professional care. Active Minds specializes in creating tool kits for students and institutions to provide more mental health care on campus.

“Giving students enough guidance so that they feel equipped and empowered but also the freedom to make this work on their own and to address the unique needs of their campus is key,” Horne said.

The Stress Less Week tool kit, for instance, guides students to take time for self-care and prioritize their own well-being by creating art, meditating, reading, doing yoga and more.

“It’s important to be proactive about our well-being so that we can prevent distress when possible,” Horne said. “However, sometimes self-care is not enough and we need more support. That’s where a mental health professional can help.”

While kits can alleviate stress and prevent crises, she said, institutions still need to ensure there are sufficient mental health services available on campus.

For some students, opening a mental health kit could be the first step in addressing their psychological needs, Samant said.

“If they don’t feel comfortable doing anything more than getting a mental health kit, just having some kind of comfort avenue for them, I think, is pretty impactful,” Samant said. “And it’s not perfect. I’d love to tell all those students to go talk to somebody, but that’s another step that they’ll hopefully eventually feel comfortable taking.”

Mental health kits are popular on other campuses as well. Northern Virginia Community College offers a virtual self-care kit and self-care booklet, with links to printable coloring books, yoga exercises and information about different campus resources. Boston University offers different kits, including one promoting a good night’s sleep, which provides students with a sleep mask, earplugs and tea, and another, which is s stress relief kit with a stress ball, crayons and Play-Doh.

While UAB students could receive Files’s mental health kits if there are extra, he said most of them prefer to join him in creating and delivering the kits for younger students across the state, which can be therapeutic in itself. College students have been especially helpful in donating items and writing notes, he said.

“If you can light an incense or a candle, rub some essential oils, squeeze a stress ball, hug a teddy bear, read a handwritten note card from someone, and that gives you a little bit of reprieve, then why not give more students that opportunity?” Files said.

The university’s counseling center also offers mental health resources to students, including the Stress Less Week at the end of each semester, when students can pick up coloring books and sleep kits and write letters of gratitude to themselves. Angela Stowe, director of UAB’s Student Counseling Services, said last spring students received mindfulness kits that included a guided meditation, a water bottle, healthy snacks and a journal.

Stowe said students appreciate having ways to manage stress and anxiety.

“We want students to develop and learn about the numerous ways that one can take care of their mental health,” Stowe said. “Having activities and resources that are diverse and accessible across campus in a variety of ways not only increases the ability of students to take care of their mental health, but it encourages people to take care of each other.”

Kerec Hill, a high school senior, calls Files his mentor. He currently works with the professor to make the mental health kits—something he got involved with because he knows firsthand what it’s like to struggle.

“I wanted to help out, because I also personally deal with anxiety, trauma and depression,” Hill said. “At first, I didn’t feel like I had help.”

Hill, who is graduating this spring and has been accepted into a number of institutions, including UAB, said wherever he decides to go to college, he’ll bring along his mental health kit. He hopes to become a psychologist and give back to his community.

“I wanted to help, because it was something I’ve been through,” he said. “So I thought it was a good idea to help and provide for others.”

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