Campus mental health strategy has a champion in its corner
The University of Manitoba’s new mental health strategy has been in effect for one year now. Launched to coincide with the national Mental Health Week, the strategy is a call to action for students, staff and faculty to view the support of mental health as our collective responsibility.
Entitled Success Through Wellness, the new strategy was approved by the President’s Executive Team on February 5, 2014. As one of the strategy’s recommendations, a campus mental health facilitator was hired to implement the strategy across the U of M campuses.
“There was recognition that in order for this work to continue, it can’t be at the side of everyone’s desk. I’m here to help implement the recommendation from this strategy,” says Natalie Roach, who’s been in the role since August, 2014.
The strategy itself was founded on the idea that mental health is not dichotomous. The strategy wants to put aside notions that individuals are either mentally healthy or unhealthy. Rather, mental health falls more into a continuum where positive mental health, regardless of diagnosis, means individuals use resources available to them. By doing so, Roach says the strategy enables students and staff to cope, flourish, thrive and have a high amount of satisfaction in life.
One of the reasons people don’t seek help is because they view their own languishing as a sign of personal weakness rather than a mental health challenge says Roach. The first step for anyone experiencing any mental duress is to seek out the resources that are available. Depending on how urgent care is needed, if staff or students are in crisis or at risk of harming themselves, they should call emergency services. If it’s not at a crisis level, Roach recommends taking a look at umanitoba.ca/mentalhealth. There is lots of information and resources there about support programs. Roach also suggests people chat with a friend or coworker, rather than holding it in.
There are so many ways to cope because there are so many different ways mental health is tied into wellness. Roach says that often when people think about mental health, they relate treatment to counsellors, which is merely one of many resources.
“So many things are tied into mental health, which makes it complex, but also makes treatment easily accessible in some ways,” says Roach. “For some people, positive coping could be going for a run in the morning. For other people, it’s making a healthy lunch the day before – knowing that putting good food in your body means you’ll feel better during the day. For other people, it’s going to a support group, for other people it’s seeing a counsellor or going to a 12-step program; it’s using the active living centre; and so on.”
One area that can be overlooked is spiritual health, says Roach. “Some people practice meditation. Migizii Agamik has full moon ceremonies for female students and staff every month and it’s about honouring your connection with grandmother moon. There’s also the Indigenous men’s wellness group. It’s not just this one on one relationship with a counsellor, there’s so many ways to access and think about mental wellness.”
Looking at it more strategically, Roach helped put together a Champions for Mental Health group who are implementing the campus mental health strategy through four distinct stages. The first stage is to prioritize over 60 recommendations that were outlined when the strategy was being developed. The next step is to figure out how to roll out the recommendations; with the third step to implement them. Finally, under the fourth step the group needs to figure out how to sustain the initiatives. The group won’t stop there – they will continue by going through the second tier priorities in terms of the recommendations.
“That doesn’t always mean new initiatives – it means increasing awareness of what we already have that people don’t necessarily know about,” says Roach. “For instance, one of the recommendations was to explore increasing the access to mental health services such as a stepped-care approach from the Student Counselling Centre. They’ve already adopted that stepped-care approach, which was implemented in September and in doing so reduced the wait list time.”
The entire mental health strategy project has been an exercise in creating awareness of the resources available to staff and students. The website, umanitoba.ca/mentalhealth, is a great start but Roach says there’s much more that can be done. Primarily, Roach would like to increasingly engage faculty about the resources available and simply talking about mental health. She would like to see faculty open discussions within the lecture hall or the classroom.
“That’s actually echoed by the current movement with the Canadian Mental Health Association. There’s a lot of resources in terms of post secondary education mental health being put towards how do we engage faculty in building resiliency right in the classroom because that’s where students are captive.”
Overall, opening the discussion is the key to increasing awareness on how mental health affects university communities. With the increasing pressures placed on both students and staff implementing the campus mental health strategy is more important than ever. Roach says demands on students’ time come not just from performing well academically, but from all corners of their lives. Often students need to maintain some level of employment to go to school. Additionally, there are demands for students to be involved in extracurricular activities to be an attractive candidate for jobs after graduation. Plus, students frequently have demands from family and friends to maintain a social standing at home and with peers.
“If you look at the staff side, it’s kind of the same thing,” says Roach. “‘I want to be a good worker, and dedicate time at work. I also want to be a good parent or have an active social life, an active outside-of-work life, and maintain general interests.’ All of these things that kind of seem that in each of their areas they contribute to your wellness and your development, that demand on your time can be a real subtle contributor to burnout, to increased stress.”
When adding up all of these sources of stress, whether you’re a student or faculty member, it means you’re not taking care of yourself. When running from thing to thing, you could be increasing your caffeine intake, or the number of times you’re eating fast food because you just don’t have time. Roach says lack of sleep and general fatigue can lead to a myriad of different symptoms as well, such as difficulty concentrating.
“I would say that with the combination of all of these kind of benign pressures, you think that you’re increasing your wellness, but you’re actually decreasing it by this massive demand on your time,” says Roach. “I think that a subtle contributor to wellness, an unsung hero, is learning when and how to say no. In a way, it sounds cheesy, but it’s saying yes to yourself.”
I’m very glad to hear this issue is getting more attention and support on campus. I’ve been a student here for two years and I’ve felt so supported by staff and faculty whenever I’ve had to raise the issue of my own mental health challenges. It makes such a difference to have that compassion and encouragement from all sides.
One thing I feel should also be part of the awareness aspect is helping people know how to respond when someone comes to them to talk about their problems.
Folks should be mindful of whether they themselves are able to be an emotional support, and how to tell that to their friend/co-worker/family member in a way that is kind to all involved.
If they are available as a support, their response should be less about offering advice and more about listening. It’s in our nature to offer advice and we want to be helpful but sometimes those comments can be unwelcome (“have you tried this?” or “my cousin did this and you should definitely try it”). The intent is to help but there’s a good chance that isn’t what the person needs to hear. There should be responses like “I know of some resources and if you’re interested, I can tell you about them” or “What would be the best way for me to support you?”
It can really make a world of difference in how people feel in terms of their day-to-day interactions in life. Knowing they won’t be judged or lectured or talked at instead of being listened to, is really huge.
Thanks very much Angie. Your input on the story and the support for those seeking help is extremely valuable.