Shining light on mental health in university
Two-hundred students from universities, colleges and other post-secondary institutions — including Thompson Rivers University —will converge on Toronto this weekend to talk about mental health and suicide.
Unleash the Noise is an initiative of The Jack Project, created by Eric Windeler after his son, Jack, committed suicide in his first year at Queen’s University in Kingston in 2010.
The student mental-health summit is designed to bring the 200 participants together to talk about programs that help ease the transition from high school to post-secondary institutions, an experience that can cause stress even in the most-prepared undergraduate, said Christine Adam, TRU’s dean of students.
She said the philosophy that guides TRU as it addresses mental health is like a pyramid, with a base that establishes the culture of awareness, respect, civility — “how we treat each other, paying attention to how we treat each other.”
Adam said that can involve anything from ensuring the people at help desks are equipped to work with stressed-out students — “because they can bring them into a good state or further exacerbate it.” to examining policies and procedures in place to ensure they address issues that can fuel stress and lead to deteriorating mental health.
“Last year was a really challenging year for us,” Adam said, with three students or alumni dying in accidents.
Doug Sage, executive director of the Kamloops branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association, said TRU is “actually doing a fair built to accommodate students with mental illness. They are part of a network of campuses involved with CMHA provincially to help promote mental-health awareness and wellness on campus.”
The university alumni association also presented its members with a session on how to respond to students with mental illness, Sage said.
“If you really think about it, campus is a place where people are separated from family for the first time,” he said.
“It is a place where drinking becomes legal. It is a social gathering place of newly freed-up young people and where the party atmosphere is pervasive.
“On top of that, the very nature of university studies for most students is a time of prolonged anxiety so, with all of these things happening simultaneously, do we really need to have diagnostic numbers to know mental health is a serious consideration for life on campus?”
Adam agreed, noting many students find themselves having to learn “new ways of coping with the world and being away from home and that can lead to substance abuse, sleep deprivation, bad nutrition.
“Some of these students are experiencing symptoms for the first tine.”
Adam said the CMHA Healthy Minds Healthy Campuses involvement is part of the next layer in the pyramid, one that includes weekly meetings of the campus case-management group that deals with specifics — students members are concerned about; others they’re aware of who may need help.
Support staff are also aware there are times during the year when the stress loads will max out and they prepare for it — particularly exam times.
“There are times when everyone is running with their hair straight back,” Adam said of the team she oversees.
“But, we know when these times are coming.”
At the top of the pyramid is the people themselves — not just those designated to provide mental-health services, but fellow students who are encouraged to be aware of those around them and take steps to ensure those who need help ask for it.
The support staff is diverse to ensure all segments of the student population are cared for and includes one counsellor who works with international students, another who specializes in students involved in the sports program and another whose focus is aboriginal students.
There is also a psychologist who is there monthly to handle student referrals.
Sage said it’s difficult to gauge if mental-health issues are increasing on campus or if society is more aware of it and students are more willing to ask for help.
“Here’s the dilemma. Yes, there are more than before, but are they more in the form of visibility or more because of actual increase in numbers?
“My hunch is that it is the first one.
“It’s just much easier to disclose it and talk about it,” Sage said.
“Having said that, recent surveys said that nine of 10 high-school students show symptoms of anxiety disorder.
“Again, I’m nor sure if that is due to actual increases or students owning up to what is a naturally anxious time in human development.”