‘We all have mental health’: University to become more proactive around well-being and mental health
Mariianne Mays Wiebe
U of M mental health consultant Stephanie Loewen is surprised by how many people see mental health in negative terms. Too often, it is thought of pejoratively when, in fact, all of us have mental and spiritual health — “whether it’s positive or negative, languishing or flourishing, or somewhere in between,” she says. “We need to take care of our own mental health and care for one another as a community.”
Over the next year, the newly hired consultant will help the university to create a cohesive mental health strategy that will lead to the implementation of many recommendations. It’s all part a bold move on the part of the university to change the way we talk about, behave in regards to and support mental health issues. The mental health movement is calling for change across the nation; other university such as Mt. Alison and UBC have already implemented such strategies in recognition of the increasing significance of mental health and well-being.
What would “a well campus” look like? It’s one of the questions the consultant aims to map out over the next year. U of M’s new strategy will be based upon an assessment of current approaches and practices to support positive mental health and an identification of areas in need of development or enhancement.
Loewen, who will be conducting the assessment and focus groups and then making mental health strategy recommendations, is on a year-long secondment from the Manitoba government.
Notes Loewen, some ideas for recommendation to have arisen from her research and from student consultations include concerns about the university’s sense of community and community space and quiet spaces on campus. Also urgent are education and awareness of workshops and services that exist, and other ideas include the possibilities for alumni student mentors and a mental health ombudsperson. She will also be working with higher level university officials in order to bring mental health considerations to the level of strategy, infrastructure and policy.
“Mental health has always been an area of passion for me,” she says, “in part because of the connection I feel due to family with mental health issues and working with people who have very compromised mental health — as well as my experiences with my own mental health.”
Despite an employment history in counselling, as outreach manager of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society and four years as provincial youth suicide prevention coordinator, Loewen has had her own mental health difficulties. In fact, she says, it has become common for almost everyone to have either first-hand or other close experience with someone else who has experienced mental health issues, even if they themselves haven’t.
After experiencing a serious depression during her post-secondary education, Loewen was forced to discontinue her studies for a time. Her second bout with mental illness came after the birth of her child, when she went through a severe post-partum depression and started a search that compelled her to seek help outside of her region — because services were not available in her own. She wound up in a “crisis stabilization unit” in Winnipeg; not ideal, she says, given that it meant she was released without follow-up in her region after her stay.
That’s changed since, though, thanks in part to Loewen. Her experience resulted in her telling her story and pursuing advocacy work with the Manitoba Regional Health Authority and the Province of Manitoba for in order to convince them of the need to establish a crisis stabilization unit in her area. One opened in Steinbach last year thanks largely to her advocacy work.
“[Experiencing a mental health crisis] alters the way you see the world,” Loewen says. “You see people through a different lens.”
‘[Experiencing a mental health crisis] alters the way you see the world,” Loewen says. “You see people through a different lens.’
Consultation takes place from April to September 2013, analysis and recommendations will be forwarded in fall 2013 and a final strategy will be recommended in January 2014. Cross-campus consultations will include student focus groups (these have already begun) and staff and faculty focus groups and interviews. A webpage on the U of M site will be another avenue for students, staff, and faculty to share their confidential feedback, experiences, and ideas to help inform the development of the strategy.
This article first appeared in the May 2, 2013 edition of The Bulletin.
Q & A with Stephanie Loewen
How is mental health —flourishing or languishing — displayed in a workplace or community?
Stephanie Loewen: Positive, good or “flourishing” mental health displays itself in so many ways in the workplace and in the learning context. Staff members that are flourishing are more productive, efficient, innovative, resourceful and work better with their colleagues and clients.
Employers reap the benefits of promoting a mentally health workforce in many ways, but tangibly, there are fewer costs related to disability claims for mental illness, and they have greater success at hiring and retaining staff.
A mentally healthy workplace is one where all employees enjoy work-life balance, clearly understand their roles and have the opportunity to contribute to decisions about how work gets done.
And what about students? Students who are flourishing in their mental health are often active in community life and building community. They have better learning outcomes and skill development, which has been shown to lead to higher retention rates and student success.
Any person who is flourishing in their mental health is also less likely to engage in problematic substance use, more likely to be physically healthy, less likely to engage in criminal or anti-social behaviour and are more likely to outlive their less-mentally well (also known as “languishing”) counterparts.
Can you say anything about the workplace side of the strategy? I think it is important to make note of the fact that for the workplace mental health side of the strategy, we are working very closely with Learning and Development Services, and the Outstanding Workplace Initiative to ensure the strategy complements and supports the ongoing work taking place under the OWI. [As mentioned in the article, surveys and focus groups are also part of the consultation process.]
Is there anything else we as a community should take into consideration with regard to mental health? A staff member or student with a mental illness can be flourishing in their mental health. It is a common misunderstanding that persons with the lived experience of mental illness are also unwell or don’t take good enough care of themselves, or are weak somehow. In my experience, some of the most flourishing people that I’ve met have been those with mental illness. I think this is due to the fact that they are more aware of and sensitive to their own needs. They are often more educated about the key elements of recovery — and these are the building blocks of mental wellness.
Can you name some of those building blocks of mental wellness? Healthy connections and relationships; taking breaks away from stressful situations and practicing being in the moment or being mindful, exercising and body movement, reaching out for help and being there to support others, practicing generosity and trying new things.
Canadian Mental Health Week takes place from May 6 to 12. Check out free, healthy living activities for students, staff and faculty in University Centre’s fireplace lounge and campo area, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. every day during this week. Hosted by U of M’s health and wellness education Julie Civka in collaboration with Student Life, Active Living, UMSU and the CMHA, the week will include events for staff, students and faculty such as pet therapy dogs, active living activities, live classical music and a mental health speaker. There will also be healthy snacks available and many chances to win great prizes.