A different kind of comfort

Students currently accessing UW&rsquo;s mental health services may soon be gifted with a uniquely designed quilt. This fleecy initiative comes following the efforts of two UW professors who spent years witnessing the impact gifting quilts can have on alleviating mental health symptoms.</p>

After spending years distributing quilts, history professors Sally Gunz and Greta Kroeker teamed up to bring their knowledge of quilting to UW students. In early Fall 2015, the pair approached Tom Ruttan, UW’s director of mental health services, with a proposal to offer quilts to students. 

“[The quilts] can have [both a] powerful and positive impact because of what it represents, because then you have this particular student [who] has something in his or her hands, or even literally wrapped around their shoulders, that represents caring in a really fundamental [way],” Ruttan said. 

Currently, UW’s mental health services carries three quilts, however none have yet to be passed out. While the initiative may have been started by Gunz and Kroeker, Ruttan and the staff at mental health services will organize all future management of quilt distribution. According to Ruttan, quilts can be especially meaningful for the symbolic value they can hold. 

“When we’re little, if we are very fortunate, we have parents or some adult in our life who really cares about us and will wrap things around either their arms or … a blanket that help us feel protected or warm. That helps us feel warm and cared for and that’s really fundamental,” Ruttan explained. “When we become adults, those experiences can be fewer and further between.”

As a professer, Gunz acknowledges there are limitations to the assistance she can provide to her students.

“The thing I always say to students is ‘I can’t approach you, you have to approach me,’” Gunz said. She later added, “My main goal is to immediately get them connected with the right people who are there to help them.”

For students experiencing mental health concerns, it’s common to feel alone and isolated. Gunz hopes that through this initiative, students are reminded that they do have access to a support system. 

At counselling services, “they can’t provide physical comfort, they can only provide professional advice and support,” Gunz said.  “We thought, if this is something counselling services could give to someone in that position, then maybe every time they use it, it would be a reminder that there are people there who are all around them at the university who really care.”

Gunz and Kroeker’s primary role in this project is organizing and designing the quilts. They help to arrange patterns, find fabrics, and design the quilts. Their designs are then developed through the efforts of Emma Martin, a Mennonite quilt maker. 

Quilting in the Mennonite community is considered a “very traditional and … social activity in the winter” Gunz said. The mennonites often quilt together.

Martin further assists the project by subsidizing production costs.

In the early stages, Gunz and Kroeker were mainly distributing quilts throughout their department.  At this point, the quilts were gifts given by friends and had yet to develop into a project. It was after the encouragement of a fellow colleague in the department, who is also a counsellor at mental health services, that they decided to approach Ruttan. 

Compared to their initial experience creating quilts for faculty, there have been many differences designing for students. When developing quilts for their peers, designs were tailored. However, for students they are constructed with greater variance. Each quilt a student receives comes with a takeaway message. 

“We want you to know that even though we don’t know your name, we really care for your well-being,” the message reads. “Each time you look at this quilt and put it around you, please think of this as an expression of our best wishes for you.” The message further includes washing instructions. 

As the quilts are uniquely designed, their prices will vary. Sometimes fabric is collected through donations, however, for quilts to become readily available, Gunz and Kroeker need to fundraise. 

When the project first began, Gunz and Kroeker set out to raise fund through their “Tiny Fundraiser.” 

Like the namesake suggests, “We just started small,” Gunz said. “Really we’ve only done it [through the] arts [department] and some of the colleges so far.” 

Starting with their  departments, they learned that in order for their project to gain real headway, they needed outspoken voices. Gunz believes that students can have a strong influence in this. 

“Students are primarily the recipients because most counselling services [are used by] students at the moment, there are a few temporary periods with staff and faculty as well but it’s mostly students,” Gunz said. “Students are a huge part of this community, so if we want [the support] from the community, students [will need to be involved] as well.”

Despite this, Gunza acknowledged, “It’s improper for us to be treading on [student] toes” in pursuing fundraising and asking for student support. It is important to work alongside student leaders and not overwhelm any existing efforts. 

While mental health services may provide these quilts and seek to expand their reach to students, ultimately, whether or not students actively use the quilts is up to them.

“I hope the symbolism is, no one else has one like it. This is yours.”