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Texas State University

The Art of Mental Wellness

How Kaitlin Hopkins Helps Students Live Their Best Lives

There’s a certainty and quiet confidence Kaitlin Hopkins exudes. Her voice is smooth and soothing. This calm she emanates without much effort is a subtle gesture to her work and research.

A faculty member in the renowned Department of Theatre and Dance, and head of musical theatre at Texas State University, Hopkins sees herself playing a meaningful role in student success and in aiding Bobcats to become leaders in their own lives.

But a student’s journey of realization and achievement is filled with plenty of difficulties, many stemming from a lack of mental wellness.

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Hopkins conducts a class focusing on the importance of students’ mental wellness.

Hopkins recognized early on in her role as an educator at Texas State that students needed mental and emotional support, and so began a fateful journey that would lead her to developing a mental wellness program for performing artists in collaboration with Dr. Bill Crawford, which ultimately evolved into researching and developing a mental wellness life skills program for all demographics with two other Texas State professors, communications expert Dr. Marian Houser and sports psychologist Dr. Hillary Cauthen.

Born into the Art

An award-winning actress, director, educator and businesswoman, Kaitlin Hopkins was born under the stage lights and into a family of award-winning actors, theatrical producers and writers. “Watching my father, my mother on film sets and theatre, growing up around it — it was all very much appealing,” she recalls.

 

Hopkins recognized early on in her role as an educator at Texas State that students needed mental and emotional support.

 

Hopkins has since gone on to appear on Broadway in multiple plays and musicals and in more than 50 television shows, including “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “JAG,” “Law and Order,” “Rescue Me,” “Spin City,” and three years on “Another World.” That doesn’t include her 11 feature appearances in films such as The Nanny Diaries, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles and How to Kill Your Neighbor’s Dog.

As a director, writer and producer, she’s worked on The World According to Snoopy, which made its world premiere in a joint production between Texas State University and Theatre Under The Stars in Houston and is now licensed by Concord Theatricals.  

A Touch of Magic

While Hopkins is proud of the work she’s done, especially being a part of the “Star Trek” legacy, she finds that being an educator has proved to be far more rewarding. “I’ve always been interested in supporting young artists, playwrights and composers. I see being an artist as being of service; to be an artist is to be an activist for social change.”

 

Broadway World found Texas State among the most represented schools on Broadway in 2019.

 

Throughout her career, Hopkins had always gravitated toward teaching, doing so at every opportunity. It was in 2009, while performing in the national tour of Dirty Dancing, that she was approached by Dr. John Fleming, then chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, now serving as dean of the School of Fine Arts and Communication. “I was given the extraordinary opportunity to come here to teach, and direct musicals,” she says.

The allure was too strong to resist, and Hopkins was drawn in immediately to the community. “San Marcos is a very magical place. I don’t know if it’s the river, but there’s a very special energy about this place. I’m very lucky to have found it and for it to have found me.”

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Hopkins rehearses with students for The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

After joining the faculty, Hopkins would go on to create the B.F.A. in musical theatre program. In 2015, College Magazine ranked the musical theatre program among the top 10 in the nation, while Broadway World found Texas State among the most represented schools on Broadway in 2019.

Despite the success and history of excellence, she remains motivated to continue pushing herself, stating, “I’m striving for excellence but not afraid to fail. We don’t want to settle just because people think we’re doing well. I want to challenge traditional musical theatre arts training and go headfirst into a deep drive exploring and implementing anti-racist theatre pedagogy that asks and addresses the hard questions we face in our artform and the professional industry.”   

 

“I see being an artist as being of service; to be an artist is to be an activist for social change.”

 

Alongside educating the artists of tomorrow, Hopkins is also the co-founder of Educators for Equity in Theatre Arts Initiative.

It’s in the process of learning with her students and collaborating with faculty members from other theatre departments where Hopkins finds her inspiration. “I’m so proud of my students, and I’m grateful for them because they’ve made me a better teacher and a better person.”

Building Living Mental Wellness

Her serendipitous arrival at Texas State would prove to be just the opportunity Hopkins needed to begin her research on performing artists and mental wellness. A CoSearch event was the catalyst of what would come to be the Living Mental Wellness preventative and evidence-based program.

 

“It is part of our responsibility as educators to teach these skills for student success. College is a part of the journey into adulthood, and students...are dealing with so many stressors and triggers, and we have to address that as part of university education.”

 

It was at this intensive retreat, which brings together multidisciplinary teams of researchers and artists to collaborate, where she would meet Dr. Hillary Cauthen and Dr. Marian Houser. At the time, both Cauthen and Houser were investigating mental wellness and life skills in various student demographics at Texas State. Recognizing that they were all on the same path, the trio of Hopkins, Cauthen and Houser decided to join their research and collaborate.

“Getting to meet these women changed my life. Co-Search gave us the chance to create a mental wellness program for all people, because we were approaching the same thing but from the perspective of serving different demographics, and that collaboration lead ultimately to LMW,” says Hopkins.

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Students learn critical life skills through the Living Mental Wellness program.

What initially sparked Hopkins’ interest in mental wellness was her experiences at Texas State: “The first two years I was here, I watched my students suffer. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was going to have to deal with students who were struggling with anxiety attacks, addictions, eating disorders and other stress-related mental health issues. So many students were crashing and burning. Often by the time I found out something was wrong they were already missing classes or in some cases having to leave school.”

This simply was not acceptable to her. In unison with Cauthen and Houser, Hopkins began to develop a mental wellness program that would focus on preventative methods to reduce stress, as well as creating a culture in their respective classrooms where students could develop the vocabulary and tools to ask for help.

Observing the importance of teaching these vital skills, Hopkins maintains, “It is part of our responsibility as educators to teach these skills for student success. College is a part of the journey into adulthood, and students, especially incoming freshman, are dealing with so many stressors and triggers, and we have to address that as part of university education.”

The founders all saw the potential for their program to not only provide skills that would help an individual self-regulate and deal with stress much more readily, but one that would also improve retention rates and academic success by helping students navigate the transition into college much better.

“Stress chemicals attack your physical health and well-being. Our freshmen come here and the number of changes to their lives is massive. If we know their mental and physical health, and ultimately their success as students, is being significantly impacted by stress … we have to ask, how can we do better?”   

The mental wellness training that was created took a holistic approach to education.

“We’re not trained to take care of our mental health or taught how to build the life skills that promote mental wellness. With Living Mental Wellness, we’re training the whole person by focusing on prevention-based verses intervention-based methods. This includes understanding the science of the brain and how it functions under stress and utilizing a developmental model of life skills including goal setting, time management, coping, communication, leadership and problem-solving that combined lead to maximizing one’s potential to be their best self, best life,” notes Hopkins.

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Hopkins with three alumni at the Spring Awakening premiere in Houston (Oct. 2019).

Understanding that success — and perhaps more importantly the sustaining of said success — is not feasible if the individual is not well, the mental wellness curriculum is about helping students, faculty and staff obtain the life skills needed to be their best selves.

“If they can be their best,” remarks Hopkins, “then they can do their best and achieve, in all professional and personal areas.”

Since the creation of Living Mental Wellness, individuals and educators alike have participated in the training and programming.  During the coronavirus pandemic prior to returning for the fall semester, 450 San Antonio middle, elementary and high school theatre teachers participated in the online training modules. By helping teachers learn how to better care for themselves, they in turn can better support their students struggling with mental wellness issues, to create more conducive learning environments.

Students and faculty in the entire Department of Theatre and Dance are also benefiting from the Living Mental Wellness program, as they will now have the opportunity to participate in the program. Hopkins’ goal is for the entire Bobcat community to eventually have access to the curriculum.

Learning & Living During a Pandemic

While the COVID-19 pandemic has created uncertain times and challenges that all members of the Bobcat community must face, Hopkins recommends implementing a gratitude practice to counterbalance the frustration that many feel.

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Hopkins and a group of students have a class meeting on Zoom (Fall 2020).

 

“Our job as artists don’t change just because there is a pandemic. We are still storytellers. How we tell those stories may change, but the job remains the same.”

 

“The reason I say to practice gratitude and to also practice going 2 percent slower throughout the day is to help you bring awareness to being more present in the moment. We’re all worried and frightened that we have no control and don’t know what’s going to happen,” she explains.

This brain stem activity triggers fight or flight responses, releasing stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol, which wear down the immune system. Hopkins sees this negative impact on well-being as an obstacle to learning and success.

So how can students minimize worrying and gain access to their creativity?

“Bring awareness to your breathing; breathing and counting at the same time while visualizing how you would rather be feeling is a neocortex activity. These practices create ‘feel good chemicals,’ like melatonin, serotonin and endorphins, which are those your body produces when you are in your neocortex, where you have access to your best self, the upper 80 percent of your brain!”

Hopkins also recommends being cautious about what you think, noting, “It’s been scientifically proven that any image you hold in your imagination creates a chemical response in your body. You can create a positive chemical response or a negative one, which will inform how you feel. Be careful what you think about. Your imagination is one of the most powerful stress-reducing tools you have.”

The actress, educator and entrepreneur practices 20 minutes of meditation twice a day and opens up each performance class with two to five breathing exercises.

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While the pandemic has certainly changed the lives of most, Hopkins views this as “an amazing opportunity to think about our work differently. Our job as artists don’t change just because there is a pandemic. We are still storytellers. How we tell those stories may change, but the job remains the same.”

In the face of today’s ever-complex world, Hopkins gives a message of hope to her students. “If you want to pursue your dreams, go for it, don’t let a pandemic stop you. The world needs artists to help heal our communities and to tell the stories that need to be told.” ⭑


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