Each spring, the UAB Student Counseling Services Student Advisory Board recognizes individuals and groups who promote and support mental health awareness with the Mental Health Champion Awards.
This year, seven individuals earned the honor: Sami Raut, Ph.D., associate professor of biology; Shelby Gillis, residence life coordinator; Lavanya Jaishankar, a rising junior majoring in biomedical sciences; Vani Mittal, a rising senior majoring in biology and public health; Nicholas Cooley, a rising senior majoring in social work; Jane Murphy, clinical research coordinator in the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences; and Sami O’Bryan, Ph.D., postdoctoral trainee in the Center for Exercise Medicine. Two registered student organizations, the Indian Cultural Association and the Black Postdoctoral Association, also were named champions.
Raut has championed mental health by showing her students “a busy, successful professor who has prioritized time for her own mental and physical well-being,” a nominator wrote. Raut also “creates an environment where people can more easily grow as a person, as a student and eventually as professional in their desired field,” they continued.
“Leading by example not only helps to humanize myself, but also enables me to support and champion these causes,” Raut said. “My advice to faculty and staff would be to make yourselves aware of resources at UAB. Don’t just put them on the syllabus and be done.”
Gillis was named a champion for her efforts to ensure her staff and the students in UAB residence halls were holistically well. A nominator writes that Gillis “does a good job of encouraging her staff members to implement [mental health-supportive] programs during high-peak times during the academic year” to support residents’ well-being.
“Not everyone struggles with mental illness, but everyone can benefit from [mental health] education and support,” Gillis said.
Lavanya Jaishankar and Vani Mittal
A nominator writes that Jaishankar is “committed to bettering students’ mental health on an individual level” and that Mittal “has gone above and beyond to make virtual and remote learning easier by hosting accessible events about mental health.”
“As a founding member of the Mental Health Ambassadors, I have been able to reach out to individuals to raise mental health awareness and help remind students they are not alone in their struggles,” Jaishankar said.
“A good education equipped with good self-care values goes a long way in students’ lives,” she said. She encourages Blazers to support family and friends in need of help, volunteer for local mental health organizations, attend mental health awareness events and encourage others not to use stigmatizing language.
Nicholas Cooley and Jane Murphy
Cooley, who is active in the UAB Collegiate Recovery Community, is known for being “highly passionate about helping others achieve their mental health goals,” a nominator writes.’’
I provide a listening ear for my friends when they need it, and I support those who may decide they need to seek therapy,” he explained.
Murphy is someone who “takes the time to check in with her co-workers” and advocates for mental health explicitly and implicitly through her actions,” nominators wrote.
“Everyone has their own struggles to overcome,” Murphy said. “I have been inspired by those who have helped me when I was at my low points.”
O’Bryan chairs the UAB Postdoctoral Association Postdoc Peer group and hosts monthly events to provide postdocs a space to discuss issues and concerns with their peers,” a nominator wrote.
“Mental health shouldn’t just be a personal goal to achieve,” she said. “Someone else’s poor mental health can affect countless others — examples of which, sadly, are far too many in our society. By advocating for mental health, we are advocating for the health and safety of individuals and the whole.”
Registered student organizations
Indian Cultural Association (ICA)
The ICA was recognized for its efforts to engage students and encourage them to step out of their “comfort realm of cultural programming,” a nominator wrote. ICA also encouraged students to focus on their mental health and professional development skills.
“We aim to be as inclusive as possible with everyone in our organization, and we try to offer many resources for mental health to our members and the UAB community,” said Anrusee Raji, ICA publicity co-director.
Black Postdoctoral Association (BPDA)
The year-old BPDA did not stop serving its members and providing a safe space during the pandemic, a nominator wrote.
BPDA provides Black postdocs “with a safe community where they can share wins and challenges in both academia and their personal lives,” said Ninecia Scott, Ph.D., BPDA president. “We understand the reality that we are underrepresented in our fields, so we share our experiences to help us progress in our science and our personal lives.”
“By actively educating ourselves on mental health, directing others to mental health resources as needed, treating others with respect, joining mental health organizations in the community and participating in mental health initiatives within the community, we can begin the work of making a change in our communities and fields,” she said.