Students are not fragile flowers – we must care about their mental health

TheGlobeandMail.com – Opinion
October 5, 2017.    AND

Michael Wilson is the chancellor of the University of Toronto and the chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Santa Ono is the president and vice-chancellor of the University of B.C.

One in five Canadians – regardless of age, ethnicity or income level – will experience a significant mental-health condition at some point in their lives. Many more will be touched by mental illness through its effect on family, friends and co-workers.

Both of us have first-hand experience with the painful toll mental illness can take.

Santa attempted to take his own life twice, once when he was a teenager and again in his 20s. Thankfully, he was fortunate enough to receive the medical and psychological support he needed to recover.

Michael lost his son Cameron to depression and suicide 22 years ago. He remembers the turnout at his son’s funeral was overwhelming, and many of Cameron’s friends said to him, if only we had known he was suffering, we would have done everything we could to help.

This is why we are compelled to speak out against the stigma associated with this disease – a stigma that prevents people from asking for the help they desperately need.

Statistics Canada reports suicide as the ninth leading cause of death in Canada, but in the 1-24 age group, 20 per cent of deaths are attributed to suicide.

As leaders in the university community, we are aware that students at all levels – elementary, high school and postsecondary – are especially vulnerable. Mental health issues affect university students in every year of study, including PhD students, who often feel they cannot open up about their struggles for fear of appearing weak.

While physical health is easy to measure and talked about openly, mental health is under the surface and often not talked about at all.

The Canadian Mental Health Association ‘s #b4stage4 campaign asks a thought-provoking question: What if we waited until Stage 4 to treat cancer?

We would never allow our medical system to wait that long to treat this disease. We fully expect to have preventive education, screening and early treatment.

Now, imagine if the standard of treatment was equal for mental and physical health conditions. Not only would it significantly improve the lives of those living with a mental illness, it would save lives.

What can institutions do? We need to recognize that none of us should be ashamed of the struggles we face. Mental illness, depression, addiction are diseases, not character flaws. We need to remove the stigma that prevents individuals from asking for help, because the sooner a condition is identified, the sooner people can heal themselves.

At UBC and U of T, the student mental-health and well-being strategies address the following areas: institutional policies and practices; providing a supportive environment; mental health awareness and self-management skills; identifying students who need help early and connecting them to appropriate resources; adequate, timely mental-health services; and case-management and risk-mitigation protocols.

The Health and Wellness Centre at U of T provides resources to help students connect, build coping skills, learn to recognize early when they may need assistance and get help when they need it. A recent gift to U of T from the Rossy Family Foundation is enabling further innovations, including assessment of more localized campus mental-health services, to increase access and reduce stigma. An example at UBC is Thrive, a program for students, staff and faculty that promotes healthy bodies and healthy minds. Thrive creates awareness of the connection between mental health, well-being and academic success, and links students to services and resources that help build mental health.

Other Canadian universities have similar initiatives. This fall, seven campuses across Canada are taking part in a pilot project led by the Mental Health Commission of Canada called The Inquiring Mind to teach students to understand and manage their mental health better.

The Inquiring Mind has three main components: stigma reduction, building resiliency and the Mental Health Continuum Model, which categorizes mental health on a simple colour scale: green (healthy), yellow (reacting), orange (injured) and red (ill). This model allows conversation without formal labels, and explains that a person can move from green to red and back again.

Much of the success of campus well-being programs relies on student leaders trained to provide peer support. University students are not fragile flowers. They are a real inspiration. Many of them have known someone who took their own life, and they are empathetic to one another.

When young people realize they are not alone in experiencing mental-health issues, it motivates them to do something about it; and they are motivated to demand their leaders do something about it, too.

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