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Collective organizing key for fighting mental health stigma

By Jacqueline Vincent, Health Science Columnist


In a room off Chapel Bay, at King’s, a small group of residence dons and current students have gathered in Tiffany Robertson’s cozy suite to talk about mental health. They’re hoping this event, which happened on Sept. 30, will become a regular occurrence.

Started last semester by Robertson, Natasha Conde-Jahnel, and Safia Haq, the King’s Mental Health Awareness Collective (KMHAC) began by publishing a homegrown zine of students’ thoughts surrounding mental illness. Though small, Haq remembers, “we provided a place for those five or ten people to write and create and reflect on their experience, and that was enough.” The sine was launched quietly, though with a sense of promise: perhaps this close-knit movement could grow, and fill a niche for King’s and Dalhousie?

The discussion was meant to be open-ended, but it’s clear that all involved are on the same page. The mandate quickly takes shape: to reduce stigma around mental illness by raising awareness and promoting discussion on campus. Most of all, Haq says, “Getting help shouldn’t be a luck of the draw type–thing, and depend on whether your friends know who to recommend … Everyone should have some sort of opportunity to learn about the resources available at their fingertips.”

Their focus is certainly on target. Students fall right into the age bracket most likely to be affected by mental illness, especially the onset of schizophrenia and mood disorders. In fact, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, 10 to 20 per cent of Canadian youth experience mental health problems, equivalent to lifetime prevalence in the adult population. Take into account age-related vulnerability, a high-stress/low-sleep environment, risk factors like drug use, and the emotional upheaval that inevitably comes with the university experience, and it’s a wonder that not all of us are in the midst of heavy turbulence.

But for those students who do experience mental health issues, there is no shortage of resources available on campus. Between the peer-support model of groups like KMHAC, residence staff (often students themselves) trained to recognize and deal with distress, and the myriad programs offered by Dal Counselling and its affiliated services, the options are plentiful.

The issue, believes Victor Day, director of Dal Counselling, is one of further extending these resources so they reach everyone who needs them. Since he began working at Dalhousie in 1978, the number of students in counselling has skyrocketed, and so has the intensity of their issues.

“More people are coming to university with pre-existing problems, and also, to some degree, the stigma about seeking help is decreasing over time. It’s a good thing overall, but does create more demand for services.”

These services include individual counselling, as well as support groups, workshops, and more unusual methods of counselling, such as the online, self-directed Feeling Better program for depression and anxiety. Demand is already high: last year, eleven part-time counsellors were hired using a new student levy of $5 per term, helping to drive average wait times for counselling down to 17 days (across all levels of urgency).

However, Day says that demand could be higher still. There are still many people reluctant to take advantage of resources they may see as intimidating. And, with a combined population of over 18,000 students to serve between Dal, King’s, and NSCAD, there are always some who slip through the cracks and never hear about these resources at all.

There are as many different opinions on how to assist students facing mental health issues as there are people willing to help. But perhaps the approach should go beyond just reacting to existing problems. The best prevention is a healthy environment, according to Day. Treating issues in isolation has its place, but in the long run, all the variables that affect a student’s psyche have to take priority. A positive orientation week, supportive residences, and welcoming athletic and recreation services are just a few campus strategies that can have a positive impact.

Such suggestions seem like common sense because they are. Ensuring that students are healthy, well-supported, and have a realistic balance between work and life goes a long way toward lowering incidences of mental health problems. Of course, a years-long trend of more students with more problems cannot be reversed overnight. For now, we can take a cue from the KMHAC’s intentions, and make sure that all students are in touch with available resources – not only formal treatment, but the invaluable resource of places and peers that allow for sharing experiences without judgement. Integrating these resources into daily life is a way for change to begin.


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