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Home for the holidays: a flash interview with Don Thomson, associate dean for health and well-being

by Madeline Moore BA'26,

This interview is being published in partnership with Prof. Michael Chasar’s English 213 class, Finding the Story: Research Methods in Literature & Creative Writing.

don-thomson.jpgAs finals week approaches, many students worry about more than course grades. The end of finals week also means the beginning of nearly a month-long break which for many students will be spent back in their hometown with family. With many students wondering how to approach this adjustment, I chatted with Willamette University’s Associate Dean for Health and Well-being Don Thomson for his guidance as both a clinician working in higher education for more than 20 years and the parent of two current college students. This is what he had to say on the topic.

Madeline Moore: What made you want to work in college mental health and well-being?

Don Thomson: I strongly believe we should all prioritize health and well-being in our lives. And of course, no one is surprised when I say that. We all know it. Prioritizing this stuff makes us healthier and better in every way. As people, partners, students, friends, family, etc. To me, I'm interested in the things that get in the way and prevent us from taking these proactive steps.

I stumbled onto college mental health quite by accident, but when I got to work with students my world changed. Helping students navigate identity formation, individuation, and values clarification, and grow from adolescents into adults is an absolute privilege. So, there really wasn't a question for me after that. This is what I'm supposed to be doing.

Madeline Moore: Many students experience a sense of displacement when returning home from university. What advice do you give them to readjust and manage the stress of transitioning back to their family environment?

Don Thomson: The experience of returning home from college for the holiday breaks is a decidedly varied experience for students given the complexities of family relationships. For many students, family/home is a supportive and affirming place and they look forward to visiting over the breaks. For others, the home environment can be less supportive. But, there are some things students can do to navigate the return home.

First, it's important to clearly communicate your expectations about the break with your family ahead of time. Secondly, I would encourage students to be flexible and keep a sense of humor during the break. Increasingly, I've been conceptualizing self-care as an act of resistance, and it's helping. The whole world wants more from us all the time, and we also tend to internalize this message. Pushing back on those expectations can help. Like students, families and parents struggle to transition to more of an adult/adult relationship with their students. An acknowledgment of this can help.

Madeline Moore: Oftentimes students need help with how to handle questions from family members about their academic performance, relationships, or future plans. What strategies can they use to navigate these conversations confidently?

Don Thomson: Though it can be hard, remember that despite the sometimes intrusive nature of these questions, they usually come from a place of genuine care and love for the student. It can also be very hard for families since most of them had immediate access to their student's up-to-the-minute progress in every one of their classes throughout high school. Not having this access can increase worry, and lead to them peppering their students with these questions hoping that the answers will help them feel better.

Students can gently remind family members that college is a process of discovery, exploration, individuation, personal growth, and value clarification as much as it is a path to a career. If comfortable, you can share with them what you have learned in your classes, what new thing excites you, and how you have changed and grown. As a nervous parent, I can say hearing these updates from my student helped me a lot!

Madeline Moore: How can students manage their time effectively during the holidays, balancing family obligations, social events, and self-care, without feeling overwhelmed?

Don Thomson: Our students definitely feel accountable to many things and people, and as a result have a tendency to feel overwhelmed. Setting some boundaries and getting comfortable with saying "no" to some things are important skills to develop; which can be hard to do with family. I also think it's important for students to connect to any traditions they experience as important while home on the break as a way to recharge.

Madeline Moore: Loneliness and isolation can be challenging for students, especially if their hometown friends have moved away or their social circle has changed. What strategies can they use to combat feelings of loneliness?

Don Thomson: Definitely. Relationships with friends at home can certainly change. I think naming and accepting these changes are important. Students can also stay connected remotely to the new friends they've made at school. Remember that the breaks are short and the new semester is not that far off.

Madeline Moore: How can students maintain their mental well-being by practicing self-care and seeking support, even if they are away from their university's mental health resources?

Don Thomson: A few thoughts: Willamette recently partnered with UWill for this exact reason. UWill is a private telehealth company offering counseling support in all 50 states. Every student gets 240 credits every academic year, which is enough for 8-hour-long counseling sessions. Regarding self-care, we also know that many students can feel guilty when they intentionally take care of their mental health needs. But if you aren't taking care of yourself, you can't be a good resource to others. There's nothing selfish in that. I am encouraging students to conceptualize self-care and seeking help as an act of resistance rather than an indulgence. That seems to resonate with some students.

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Author bio

Madeline Moore is a second-year English major at Willamette University. She is familiar with the services Bishop Wellness Center offers and advocates for student mental health needs.

About UWill

Willamette University is pleased to announce expanded mental health support for all currently enrolled students. Willamette University has partnered with Uwill, an independent student mental health and wellness solution offering access to telehealth counseling. In addition to and separate from counseling offered through Bishop Wellness Center, students have an immediate, secure, and convenient way to receive online-based counseling services should the need arise.

Register and book your first session. If you need any assistance, you can refer to the Uwill FAQ or reach out directly to Uwill at 833.99.Uwill or support@uwill.com.

Schedule an Appointment at Bishop

To schedule an appointment, please visit Bishop or call 503-370-6471. If you need an appointment urgently, please let the front desk know you are requesting an immediate appointment.

Bishop Hours

Monday–Friday
8 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1–4:30 p.m.

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