Mental Health Class Transformed from Theory to Real Life


Dr. Denise Paquette Boots holds Reilly, her 4-month-old golden retriever.
Dr. Denise Paquette Boots, a UT System Regents’ Outstanding Teacher, typically advises students on college exams and life stressors during her mental health and social issues class. Now she is using that time to check in on her UT Dallas students’ well-being and anxiety levels during a global pandemic.
“I’ve had students share with me stories about job losses, sicknesses and how their families are struggling,” Boots said. “Mental health has become a central issue during this time, and our class offers a timely opportunity to explore how we can invest in our own self-care as well as how to support others who may be struggling.”
Originally designed as a class exploring issues related to types of mental health disorders, as well as social perceptions, community treatment options, managed health care models and public policy regarding mental health, it has quickly morphed into a real-world crash course in managing uncertainty during a worldwide crisis.
“These are truly unprecedented times,” Boots said. “This class is very relevant right now.”
Boots, associate dean of undergraduate education in the UT Dallas School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences (EPPS), now teaches the three-credit course Friday mornings via remote learning. She has used the virtual class to introduce her students to Reilly, a 4-month-old golden retriever that went from family pet to part of her curriculum.
“We call it ‘puppy therapy,’” Boots said. “Reilly gives students a chance to connect with each other using a common love of something cute and nonthreatening. Reilly sets the tone that they are entering a safe space. Creating a positive classroom environment, whether it be virtual or live, is essential for student learning.”
After watching Boots enjoy some playtime with Reilly, class gets underway in an open chat forum. As many as 61 students greet each other in a class chat room, similar to that of group therapy. The conversation is light and upbeat with discussions of how students’ weeks are progressing and their upcoming plans for the weekend.
“Are you feeling good? Are you keeping up with classes?” Boots asks.
She then directs students’ attention to their assignment, a research paper on COVID-19. Their task is to reflect on their experience and write a story on human resilience and how each of them has managed their mental and physical health while in quarantine.
“Quarantine can take a serious mental toll, and college students are not immune,” Boots said. “Part of the reason for this is the impact that quarantine has on three key elements of mental health: autonomy, competency and connectedness. The isolation imposed on human beings, who are social animals by nature, frequently leaves people feeling that they have no control over the situation. They also feel cut off from the rest of the world and unable to perform their usual duties effectively.”
Class discussion covers other topics, too, including limiting saturation of news on coronavirus infection rates and deaths. The parade of bad news surrounding the virus can seem endless, she said.
“Behind the scenes, researchers are calling for studies into the emotional toll as more and more people struggle with depression, anxiety and emotional exhaustion,” Boots said. “Added stress includes switching to entirely virtual classrooms. The change has been emotionally and logistically challenging for thousands of teachers and students who have come to rely on face-to-face teaching methods.”
Boots urges her students to focus only on what they can control and to continue to balance work and life stressors to ensure their health and well-being.

“Dr. Boots’ class has provided an immense amount of comfort as she has gone out of her way to establish some normalcy in the midst of chaos.”
– Nikki Tran, psychology senior

Nikki Tran is enrolled in Dr. Boots’ class. Tran will graduate this spring with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
“Dr. Boots’ class has provided an immense amount of comfort as she has gone out of her way to establish some normalcy in the midst of chaos,” Tran said. “She approaches mental health with a great deal of compassion and empathy that has caused me to reevaluate the way I treat my own mental health.”
Boots offers some final advice: “It’s all about how you process it. Take time to reflect on what you do well and ways you can improve. Think about the things you took for granted. Think about how to be healthier coming out of this than when you went in.”
–Melissa Cutler