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Making Space Cole Gershkovich ’24 found his purpose studying spaces that foster belonging and empowerment among individuals with mental health challenges.

Cole-headshot-scaled-600x400 Making Space

“For me, it’s about the importance of opening up conversation about something you normally feel like you can’t talk about, and providing spaces for individuals to be open and radically accepted.”

~ Cole Gershkovich ’24

In its mission to produce lifelong learners, Washington and Lee University encourages students to find their passions and pursue interests or work that is meaningful to themselves and the community, both at the university and beyond. Cole Gershkovich ’24 found his purpose in mental health research and advocacy and has channeled that passion in a variety of ways.

A cognitive and behavioral science (CBSC) major, Gershkovich has focused his research on exploring social spaces that can serve the needs of people who self-identify as having mental health challenges. Guided by his own mental health experiences and those of his family and friends, Gershkovich is interested in finding and studying — and even creating — communities that are more open to talking about mental health and providing nonmedicalized spaces that don’t focus on clinical solutions but on acceptance and support.

“More people are talking about mental health and willing to have conversations about their experiences, getting help and finding resources,” the Spring Hill, Tennessee, native said. “But I’m not hearing as much the side of people just creating spaces where it’s safe to just not be OK and where you can be radically accepted. I think it’s very important to keep in mind that a lot of people are longing for that kind of space and not always exclusively looking for resources just to recover from an illness.”

Gershkovich’s work with the Peer Counselor program at W&L, a team of student volunteers dedicated to helping other students experiencing any kind of emotional problems or need for additional social support, reinforced this idea. Gershkovich, who became a peer counselor his sophomore year, appreciates the emphasis W&L places on non-medicalized mental health and says it has been an “incredible experience” to help support the student community. He served as head peer counselor his senior year and received the Outstanding Peer Counselor award at the 2024 Leadership Excellence Awards, held in March. Additionally, Gershkovich participated in W&L’s Human Library in January of this year, a program that facilitated open and honest conversations between people and served as an example of a safe, nonmedicalized space for individuals to talk about mental health and share their experiences.

Gershkovich’s passion for mental health awareness also inspired his academic research, and his CBSC senior thesis uses qualitative data to explore the social side of mental health, as opposed to the clinical.

“I felt that something lacking in my own life was spaces to talk about mental health in ways that weren’t focused on clinical solutions,” said Gershkovich, who was awarded the 2023 David G. Elmes Pathfinder Prize in Psychology. “With my thesis, I want to see how people integrate their mental health experiences into their identity and how that might manifest in the kinds of communities they are looking to be a part of.”

For Gershkovich, people with mental health issues are too often just seen as patients, and his thesis sought to push back against an overly clinical understanding of mental health and supplement current research with a more human-centered approach. One of the central elements of Gershkovich’s research was developing a survey that allowed participants to provide anonymous feedback in the form of free-response questions and answers, describing their own experiences with mental health issues. He was careful to phrase the questions in ways that were about the individual, not a diagnosis or illness, and conducted a qualitative analysis using the program Dedoose to look for themes and patterns in participants’ responses.

Gershkovich worked closely with Karla Murdock, the Jo M. and James M. Ballengee Professor of Cognitive Behavioral Science, on his thesis, in a partnership that began when Gershkovich visited W&L as a prospective student during Johnson Weekend (an on-campus visit and competition for Johnson Scholarship finalists) in March 2020. Gershkovich knew he wanted to study psychology or cognitive and behavioral science in college and reached out to Murdock to learn more about the opportunities at W&L. “She’s just the obvious connection, and we started talking and the relationship just blossomed,” Gershkovich said.

Murdock admires Gershkovich’s ambition and has appreciated the opportunity to explore a different angle of her own research by mentoring and working with Gershkovich. Their collaboration is a hallmark of the W&L experience, demonstrating the emphasis the university places on student research, as well as on faculty mentorship and partnerships between faculty and students.

“My training is in clinical psychology, and I teach a class that focuses on how we define and diagnose mental illness. It’s important to me that this class focuses on aspects of positive mental health, too, which we can experience right alongside symptoms of mental illness,” said Murdock, who is also the outgoing director of the Mudd Center for Ethics. “One of my favorite things about teaching at W&L is that my research program can grow to encompass new interests. I have loved working with Cole on his thesis because it has introduced me to new methods and ideas that haven’t been part of my work in the past.”

Gershkovich’s research methods allow people to tell their stories in their own way. Although his approach is different from hers, Murdock recognizes the need to refocus mental health research on nonmedical spaces, particularly because of the way she has observed younger generations experiencing high levels of stress and distress.

“There is a really important role for supportive community settings that are non-clinical in nature,” Murdock said. “When low-barrier  community supports are available, we can more easily navigate stressors or symptoms before they become overwhelming.”

Gershkovich and Murdock will continue their collaborative research after Gershkovich graduates, teaming up to archive and analyze responses from participants in public art installations by the urban-space artist, Candy Chang. This project stemmed from a conversation between Murdock and Chang when Chang delivered a lecture on campus in February as part of W&L’s Mudd Center for Ethics’ series on the “Ethics of Design.”

Chang is a world-renowned artist and urban designer who is best known for the “Before I Die” public art project that invites people to reflect on mortality and meaning as a community through writing on a chalkboard wall (one is on display in Leyburn Library through June 1). Her participatory public art projects invite people to share their emotions, thoughts and beliefs anonymously and aim to uncover the psychological layers within communities. Starting with the installations “Confessions,” which explores public rituals for catharsis, and “Monument for the Anxious and Hopeful,” which has amassed over 55,000 responses that reveal the apprehensions and expectations of participants, Murdock and Gershkovich will collect and archive responses in a searchable database and analyze them for themes and connections, looking for insight into people’s understanding of themselves when they are presented with a safe space to explore their innermost selves.

For Gershkovich, this project builds upon the research he conducted for his thesis by emphasizing open-ended and self-reported data. Additionally, engaging in participatory art as a scientific study is the perfect practical combination of his CBSC major and studio art minor.

“We really want to be able to create this beautiful intersection between science and art,” Gershkovich said. “We have this beautiful piece of art that has all this humanity in it, and we want to know how we can better understand humanity by looking at it — which is the essence of psychology, only applied to a more creative setting.”

Gershkovich is eager to gain more qualitative research experience with the Chang research project and believes it will help guide him on his career path. He hopes to attend graduate school after a gap year and build upon the research he began at W&L, keeping “the spirit of [his] thesis alive.”

The spirit of Gershkovich’s thesis will also be kept alive in the novel he’s working on, which explores chronic and mental health advocacy through a cast of characters dealing with their own health issues who must band together to save a museum from going under. The novel combines Gershkovich’s creative passions with his research interests to take a lighthearted approach to a heavy topic, and he hopes readers will recognize themselves in the characters and find comfort in the safe space the novel represents for sharing painful or challenging experiences.

“I know I want to continue with this theme and keep doing mental health support and connection in community settings,” Gershkovich said. “For me, it’s about the importance of opening up conversation about something you normally feel like you can’t talk about, and providing spaces for individuals to be open and radically accepted.”

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