She ran her hands through the dog’s fur and scratched its head. It licked her face, and she could feel the tension and stress of the semester slowly melting away.
Hugs and Pups Posse Encouraging and Empowering, or HAPPEE, is a local nonprofit organization that brings “Hugs and Pups” teams to the UNC campus. These teams consist of a friendly dog and a parent giving out “mom hugs” to any student.
“We hear a lot about how students miss their pets back home. We also hear a lot about how people miss their mom or miss their family. We’re here to sort of stand in the gap and be a substitute dog and parent,” HAPPEE Co-Founder Cathy Emrick said. “We’re just so thankful that we’re in a position that we can provide a little bit of support.”
Laying Down The Foundation
Emrick co-founded HAPPEE with friends Noel-Beth Sipe and Michelle Young in a time of hardship on campus. UNC canceled classes on Oct.12, 2021 following two deaths by suicide and two additional suicide attempts within a month. It was declared a “wellness day”, but many students called the university to take further action and provide mental health resources for students.
“The whole campus was just blanketed with grief and sadness and anxiety,” Emrick said.”It was a hard place to be.”
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, petting a dog lowers stress hormone levels. This leads to a decrease in depression and anxiety. After four suicide attempts over six weeks, UNC students were clearly overwhelmed and needed a break from the stress, Emrick said.
UNC parents and community members hosted a rally in support of students on Oct. 14, 2021. They encouraged students to relax, talk about their feelings and support one another. Emrick brought her dog to the rally, and HAPPEE has been on campus almost every day since dorms opened in August.
Striving To Support
Students often find UNC’s campus to be an isolating place. The COVID-19 pandemic has hindered social interaction and community building in an unprecedented way. HAPPEE aspires to help students feel less alone.
“Every time they would sit down and play with a dog you could see some of this grief roll off and they just became kids again,” Emrick said. “They would smile and they would laugh. It gave them just a few moments reprieve from this horrible oppressive environment that just was enveloping campus. A lot of the students cried when we hugged them. Sometimes so did we.”
HAPPEE intends on functioning as additional support on UNC’s campus, not as a solution to mental health difficulties. They recommend seeking help from UNC’s Counseling and Psychological Services or other professionals.
According to Emrick, one of HAPPEE’s future goals is community building. The organization is in the process of creating chat groups and planning events to bring together UNC students seeking mental health support.
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A Note From The Author:
I would like to say a special thank you to Cathy Emrick and the whole HAPPEE team for letting me do this project. It’s not an easy task to act normal with cameras in their faces. I feel like I have made meaningful connections with some of these team members (including the dogs) and could not be more thankful.
As someone who has had a family member die of suicide, it means a lot to see someone out there trying to make the world a better place to live in. I encourage every UNC student to pay HAPPEE a visit.
“The Friend Who Keeps You Young.” The Friend Who Keeps You Young | Johns Hopkins Medicine, 22 Sept. 2021, https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-friend-who-keeps-you-young.
Reese Druckenmiller, L.I.C.S.W. “College Students and Depression.” Mayo Clinic Health System, Mayo Clinic Health System, 5 Aug. 2022, https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/college-students-and-depression.