NCC launches 'Zen Zones' with aim of boosting student mental health
BETHLEHEM TWP., Pa.— Introducing the new 'Zen Zone' on campus, Northampton Community College President David Ruth shared a moment of openness that became a theme for the ribbon-cutting.
"Sometimes, we say this, but we don't practice this: it's OK to be vulnerable," Ruth said.
"It's OK to not always have the right answers. Sometimes we make mistakes, and it's OK to ask for help, and that's what it's all about. I don't have all the answers, but I have a lot of smart people that work with me, and I make a lot of mistakes, and I'm vulnerable, I admit it, and I get help when I need, and that's how we need to share, that it's OK to be that way," he said.
The statement from the college president came at the end of a panel discussion to introduce the space and its importance. The conversation featured academics, school staff and groups involved in the zone's development, funding, and construction, and a student who shared his personal story.
Marvyn Jimenez is a second-year media production student, and is involved in various groups and advocacy projects on-and-off campus. He wore a bright yellow bandana, and shared his own history with mental health struggles. He also spoke candidly about what he thought the school could do better to serve its students who sometimes need some help.
'We're behind you'
"I've struggled with mental health, for years of my life," Jimenez said after the panel. "It's been up hills, down hills — but Northampton has helped me with that. Not only with the counseling services, but just the general atmosphere of being heard and being valued, and understanding of, you know — a life that has its hiccups."
"I've struggled with mental health, for years of my life. It's been up hills, down hills—but Northampton has helped me with that. Not only with the counseling services, but just the general atmosphere of being heard and being valued, and understanding of, you know—a life that has its hiccups."Marvyn Jimenez, second-year Media Production studies student at NCC
Despite being critical of some of the logistical speed bumps in the school's mental health system, he said he was being sincere in his general praise of it. Initiatives like the Zen Zone, Jimenez said, are part of the earnest effort he sees the college administration making in the direction of supporting students.
Ruth kicked off the ribbon cutting ceremony by praising Jimenez.
'We are behind you," Ruth said. "This school is behind you."
Jimenez later said it meant a lot to him, and made him feel valued.
Entering the Zen Zone
The Zen Zone, as it exists at the main Bethlehem Township campus, is a room on the smaller side, filled with wooden privacy screens that work as cabinets, fluffy plush chairs, coloring books and weighted blankets.
There is a new Zen Zone at each of NCC's campuses, and they were created in partnership with Preventative Measures, an Allentown-based organization that provides mental health and supportive services.
The Zen Zone has no affiliation with Zen Buddhism, according to school officials, and the word "zen" is just being used as a figure of speech.
Two of the main proponents of the initiative are NCC psychology Professor Jennifer Bradley and Associate Vice Provost Eric Rosenthal. Rosenthal teaches in the psychology department at the college part-time, and is a psychologist by training.
"He's my champion," Bradley said jokingly about Rosenthal.
"This isn't really about 'safe spaces'—or that kind of philosophy. As you probably know, that's where you're kind of protected from people offending you. But this really—has nothing to do with that. This is about having a place where there's less stimuli, less commotion, just kind of a place to chill and relax. So I don't think it's any of those kind of politics connected—and I think if there was one thing that kind of unites the different sides of the political spectrum, it's, if anything, mental health—that's one of those few things that I believe everyone agrees on."Eric Rosenthal, Associate Vice Provost and Dean of Students at NCC, and psychology professor.
When asked to describe the room, Bradley said: "It's a space for anyone in the community to be able to come and get away from the stimulation of campus life, move away from their academic or their work roles, and just be able to relax there and have a chance to recharge."
Rosenthal agreed, and pointed to another feature.
"There are different types of seating kind of catered to neurodivergences," Rosenthal said. "So people on the autism spectrum or who have ADHD, or anxiety, some types swiveling or rocking can be really soothing."
Bradley said the response has been overwhelmingly positive so far, even citing examples of students entering into the room when it wasn't supposed to be open for use yet.
Not a 'safe space' in the political context
Rosenthal said it's not the kind of "safe space" that sometimes gets made fun of in conversations about academic freedom and social issues—or conversely, used as a pointto mock activists and progress.
"This isn't really about 'safe spaces'—or that kind of philosophy," Rosenthal said; "As you probably know, that's where you're kind of protected from people offending you. But this is really—has nothing to do with that.
"This is about having a place where there's less stimuli, less commotion, just kind of a place to chill and relax. So I don't think it's any of those kind of politics connected—and I think if there was one thing that kind of unites the different sides of the political spectrum, it's, if anything, mental health—that's one of those few things that I believe everyone agrees on."
Rosenthal said among young people in general and on NCC campuses, 30-35% struggle with mental health, and almost as many have had thoughts of suicide.
Both Bradley and Rosenthal agreed that it's important to have open lines of communication around the topic on campus, and the Zen Zone, they said, is a step in the right direction.