Q & A with Sonya Satinsky, Director of Health Promotion and Prevention Services| Oct 4, 2016
Sonya Satinsky began serving as the director of health promotion and prevention services for University Health Services on Sept. 26. She sat down with The Daily Princetonian to discuss her personal perspective on health, sexuality, and gender issues, and a holistic approach to wellness.
The Daily Princetonian: What are some of your healthy habits?
Sonya Satinsky: That's a great question. I like to drink a lot of water, and I like to eat a lot of vegetables, and I like to talk to my friends on the phone a lot because I think social health is sometimes just as important, if not more important, than some of the physical health behaviors. Those are three things that I do pretty frequently.
DP: How has your career influenced your lifestyle over the years?
SS: I entered the field because of my particular interest in gender and sexuality. So that was my academic interest, and then I applied it to the field of health. When I was in college, I did a practicum doing sex-ed with young people who were in a juvenile detention facility. And it was a really interesting experience because there were a lot of young people in there who were already sexually experienced, some of them already had kids, and yet they hadn't received basic sex education. So I think the connection between my field and my personal life is that it's important to me, as an individual, to be an advocate for the sexual, gender-related rights of other people. That's an important part of my identity: trying to promote well-being for folks of all sexualities, genders, races, et cetera.
DP: How did that interest in sexuality and gender start?
SS: It was an area that I found interesting because it's relevant to pretty much everyone, and yet there are so few people that are really comfortable having public dialogues about sexuality and sexual health in particular. So I think I was drawn to the idea that I could really contribute because it was something that was fascinating to me, and it was fascinating to most other people even if they weren't necessarily willing to admit it or talk about it. I could play a role in facilitating more comfortable conversations.
DP: As the director of health promotion and prevention services, what are your big project goals for this year?
SS: My first big project goal is to understand our community better. I'm new to Princeton, I'm new to New Jersey, and every community has its own ecosystem. If you think about health in terms of the individual level, the community level, the social level, you have to learn what your community is like. And so, for me, it's understanding how this University works – who the students are, and what their needs are. I don't want to go rushing headlong into anything ... Health promotion works best when it's responsive to what folks say they need and want.
DP: That is to say, you will develop programs that are more concrete as you learn about the needs of Princeton students?
SS: Exactly. And we have some programs that are already in place that [will continue with my support]. We've got the Peer Health Advisers and the BASICS [Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students] program that's available to anyone who's interested in having a conversation about substance use ... We're also part of the UMatter initiative ... It's really focused on alcohol, harm reduction related to alcohol, mental health promotion, sexual assault prevention education, and consent ... Sorry, I can't give you a big, "This is what we're going to do in the next year!" because I think that's one of the problems with certain public health initiatives, is they're so top down, rather than bottom up. They don't pay attention to what folks' needs actually are. And when you do that, it doesn't work very well.
DP: What are your ideas surrounding sexuality and sex education?
SS: There are ways in which talking about sexual health needs to be tied into much larger conversations. We could have conversations about, "These are the steps for putting on a condom." But unless we have a conversation also about, "And this is how to talk about using a condom with your partner," then you're probably not going to get to the point where you understand you're supposed to check the air bubble first before you open the package, right? It doesn't happen in isolation. For undergraduate students in particular, this can be a very formative time in terms of relationships, and so [we are] tying the discussion of sexual health into, "What kind of relationships do you want to have? What does a healthy relationship look like?" And for folks who are in a transition, either because their sexual orientation is changing or their gender identity is changing, that can complicate and overlaps with sexual health needs ...
One of my research areas was the impact of body image on sexual health, and I think that's an area that doesn't get talked about nearly enough. Being sexual with a partner means you're exposing parts of your body that you may not share with anybody else, so how you feel about that, how you feel about yourself, can necessarily impact how you relate to someone else sexually.
DP: What do you see as the most effective strategies for helping college students who struggle with eating disorders and appearance-related insecurities?
SS: I think it's multifaceted ... engaging with professional support, a counselor who specializes in eating disorders ... but I also think I'm a proponent of “Health at Every Size,” this idea that you love and care for your body at whatever size it's at, and starting to understand and accepting your body can be an important part of eating disorder recovery.
DP: What do you most want to bring to Princeton from your previous position at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst?
SS: The things that were really successful at UMass Amherst were community engagement around alcohol in particular. We create a culture that drinking happens within, so is it expected, even for people who aren't interested in drinking? How does the town interact with the campus? That's one thing. Another thing is just trying to have a student-centered approach to health promotion and prevention ... Really promoting the UMatter initiative is also going to be really important. I think there's great information in there, and students, from what I understand, have really bought into what UMatter can do, because students care about taking care of each other too ...
DP: The posting for your Princeton job sought someone to lead a "socio-ecological approach to health promotion and harm reduction.” What do you take that phrase to mean?
SS: Individuals don't live within a vacuum. Many health promotion initiatives are just about what you can do as an individual, right? Do you drink enough water? Do you eat enough vegetables? The socio-ecological model really takes into account [that] there's the individual and they're situated within a social environment, a community, a culture, and those interact with each other. It's all well and good to say, "You should get more physical activity!" to someone who lives in a neighborhood where it's not safe to go outside. It's about paying attention to the built environment and the social environment and the ways that an individual interacts with each of those levels to build their health and wellness. How do we create an environment in which the healthy choice is the easiest choice, and we're making space for people to be their healthiest selves, individually and with each other? ...
DP: Is there anything else you'd like to add?
SS: I'm really hoping that our office continues to be collaborative with all of the other departments and student groups on campus. I think that's how we do our best work. Health promotion is really everyone's business. Health is so all-encompassing. It can really take into account so many different factors, offices, initiatives. But I also would want people to know that we've got professionals here in our office who are really skilled in health behavior theory – [for example], so why do people do what they do? – creating good interventions, evaluation, and that we would like to be partners with folks who are interested in doing those kinds of things. So if a student group wants to create a health and wellness event, come to us and let's talk about it, and we'll help support that.