‘A work in progress’

(Graphic by Wade Thompson)

There has been something lurking among university students as of late and it isn’t always easily detected or described.

However, it can be felt. Felt in a way that impacts numerous of students — or just people in general — to a point where it drastically hinders their normal and daily life, impacts their will, motivation, emotions and overall well-being.

It’s a personal matter, but it is never the same for everyone.

Mental health, an increasingly common term being thrown around university campuses in the past few years, is becoming more of a prevalent issue as universities in Canada and abroad wrestle with the notion of student mental illness and how to address it, whether that is depression, extreme stress, overwhelming anxiety or thoughts or attempts of suicide.

It took Michael Onabolu, a fifth-year student at Wilfrid Laurier University and the president and CEO of the Wilfrid Laurier University Students’ Union, a while before he reached out and addressed his mental health illness. It wasn’t particularly easy.

“I was scared I guess, I didn’t know what was going on or how to react,” Onabolu said of his first mental health situation. “So I didn’t really talk about it.”

The resulting situation forced Onabolu to drop his job as a residence life don, take the rest of his fall third-year term off and to be instated in a mental health facility for a period of time — a rather dramatic turn of events for a university student.

“That was an experience in of itself [being in an institution]. You know, having to take medication, being on a program, meeting with a psychiatrist. It was something I was trying to accept, but something that I didn’t really accept,” explained Onabolu.

When Onabolu returned to Laurier the following January, he began to talk about his issues more, help other people and share his experiences so that others wouldn’t remain silent like he did. Mental health became something Onabolu really wanted to address in his 2012 WLUSU presidential campaign. An aspect of student life that, he said, resonated with a lot of students.

“And that was amazing, it was amazing to be able to be a resource for people, to share and support one another,” he added.

Onabolu is not alone. Alison Edgar-Bertoia, a psychiatrist and director of Laurier’s Counselling Services, noted that within the first three weeks of this 2012-13 academic year her office was flooded with somewhere between a two to three times increase in student demand compared to last year.

The number of attended appointments for each academic year from 2000 to 2009 remained under the 2,000 mark. Last year, however, that number spiked to about 3,800.

The statistics tell the story: students are seeking assistance.

“We are definitely pretty much in an crisis ourselves in terms of trying to reach demand,” explained Edgar-Bertoia. “We’re really focusing all our energy and resources to support students who are coming to us and providing an effective clinical service.”

Over-achievers, over-stress

With gloomy job reports and increased competition within that market, many students have taken on many extra-curricular activities to ensure they get ahead and land that “dream job”.

“Being a student now is the hardest thing in the entire world, especially with the pressures of volunteering, the pressures of work and the pressures of getting a job when all you hear in the news is that there are no jobs,” explained Adam Lawrence, the acting dean of students at Laurier’s Waterloo campus. “We’re telling students when they first start during Orientation Week that they need to start thinking about their career and building the resume.”

Onabolu noted that over-extending himself was part of the reason why he felt overwhelmed with all the activities he was involved in. While saying that volunteering is a positive aspect of student life —and that it should be encouraged — he urged that there always needs to be a balance.

“You want to do things so you’re well-rounded and that you have these great experiences but you need to find that balance,” he continued. “And I think if you want to do it all and do it really well, that’s a lot of pressure you’re putting on yourself.”

Onabolu recommended that students find a “down-time”, and to find a healthy balance with work, exercise, sleep and social activities.

“You’re challenged a lot more and you feel like you’re left to your own devices to accomplish a lot,” Onabolu added about the university experience.

Allan Strong, the recovery education coordinator at The Self-Health Alliance, a community peer and recovery support group for mental illness, echoed Onabolu’s sentiments.

“You’re away from home, you’re away from all the supports that you knew, you’re making adjustments to a new world, a new environment, there’s greater degree of responsibility and expectation put on you, you don’t know too many people, and all of a sudden you’re sitting in class and you start hearing voices,” he explained.

Just recently, Laurier hired Adrienne Luft as the mental health/student support team leader. She, along with counselling services and WLUSU, is spearheading a discussion around mental health which includes campus research, setting up committees and facilitating workshops.

But students are faced with academic stress all the time, this is nothing new. Essays, group projects, assignments, even social situations — these are all ingrained in the university system. This has posed many questions about the nature of student mental health and what it actually entails.

“I like thinking about mental health as it exists on a continuum. At one end that’s sort of an optimal being and one end being mental illness. We all fluctuate in our mood,” said Luft, mentioning that almost everyone, regardless of their situation will experience mental health challenges at some point in their life.

“I think one of the ways in which I would define mental illness is that it is persistent and long standing. So it’s not just when you’re feeling sad for a few days when you had something happen in your life.”

That persistence is what Onabolu felt. “Stress doesn’t last for a long period time. When you’re stressed out while working on an assignment, you’ll be okay in a few days,” he explained.

“If you’re not getting sleep, you’re not eating — you know, when you’re not doing the natural things to just function. That’s when it becomes a real concern and it’s affecting your mental health.”

But if those signals are emerging and if those issues become more persistent, that’s when mental wellness can be endangered. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), about 20 per cent of Canadian youth face mental health complications, and only one in five of them seek help. Without help, the implications can just get worse and last a lifetime.

“The mental health ‘career’ begins when they leave high school and when they’re entering university or college,” added Strong. “That’s the age where things start to happen.”

Lawrence noted that the idea of body image and concerns about appearance — especially in this age demographic — can also have a large impact on a person’s overall mental well-being.

But many students still shy away from seeking assistance because of external pressures and cultural norms. According to Strong, a stigma about mental health and illness— typically with people believing that mental health issues make someone “dangerous” — still exists to this day.

Erasing the stigma

Both Lawrence and Luft agreed that a stigma still exists on campus for people who suffer from mental health issues. This can have a direct effect on not only the willingness of somebody to seek help, but also for people who don’t know how to deal with someone with a mental health illness.

“If we can educate your circle of friends — and you — then we can be a little more proactive,” explained Luft, adding that it’s imperative they educate the staff, faculty and students on the topic of mental health so they can help their peer if they see warning signals.

But a mentality of just disregarding your issues still exists to this day, especially in very competitive fields such as business. Luft acknowledged that there is a time to “buckle down and go on,” but noted that it’s not always the appropriate approach.

“I don’t think that necessarily had positive outcomes,” she said. “Those things are going to impact you over time if you don’t deal with them.”

“The whole term of ‘sucking it up’ or ‘man-up’ or ‘don’t be a baby’, are terms that we hope to eliminate. These are not things that you just brush aside and go on with your life,” added Lawrence.

“Everyone’s different … there are multiple variables that add to your stress that don’t necessarily affect everyone else.”

Over the next couple months, Luft and her team, as well as WLUSU, hope to educate students on the topic of mental health so they can slowly remove that stigma. These programs and workshops will hopefully make the university more proactive so they can prevent a student from taking extreme measures such as suicide.

“I think that it’s a work in progress, right? There are certainly more people that are more comfortable coming forward, but there is still a ways to go,” Luft said of the stigma.

Onabolu felt that weren’t people necessarily against mental illness, they just have trouble understanding what one person is going through and are usually afraid of offending someone.

“People just don’t understand it especially if you haven’t been through it. You don’t really know how to engage a person if you think their too sensitive or what not,” he said. “I was really sensitive when I was going through my mental health issues. I think that just being kind to a person, talking to them, getting their mind of it.”

“Just making a person laugh is the biggest thing.”

Resource struggles

Because of steep increases in student demand at Laurier’s Counselling Services, resources are limited. To purely focus on the students, however, counselling services had to put a hold on their committees and programs that they hoped to implement this year.

“We’re working closely with David McMurray, VP: student affairs, and also the WLUSU student leaders to look at what we do and what our mandate should be and how we should prioritize with what our appropriate resourcing should be,” explained Edgar-Berotia.

Michael McMahon, the former general manager of WLUSU and current executive director of the Oxford county branch of the CMHA, noted that the situation of resources is not unique to Laurier — all universities are struggling to find the proper funding model for mental health initiatives.

“I don’t know if you can make a good balance score card argument that mental health is an issue on Laurier’s campus. People say it is, but does the balance score card, backed up by the financial model, demonstrate Laurier financially believes it’s a big issue?” he said. “And that’s the same at most campuses, not just Laurier.”

Before McMahon left the university in June, after more than a decade of service at WLUSU, he helped set up the Ceridian Student Life Line, an anonymous phone service that helps students with their issues.

“We need to make sure that everyone understands what role and what the goal is [of the student life line]. And the goal of the Students’ Union at the time, and I’m sure it still is,  was to create more campus access points in the campus system so that more students will then use the counselling service that the university is offering,” he explained, noting that offering more resources would be a good thing for Laurier’s campus.

“The perception was, and this is unbelievable but true, that the Student’s Union wasn’t valuing the service that [counselling services] were providing,” he added, but noted that the work that the counselling services at Laurier does is “amazing”.

“Somebody has to work really hard to ensure that those workers are very, very comfortable with the resources that are coming from the outside.”

The first step

As it was for Onabolu, making the first step to address a mental health concern for a student can be an overwhelming challenge. But recognizing that you have an issue and that you need help is first thing that a student has to do in order recover.

“I think you have to recognize that you have an issue. Recognize that something is going on and that you need help,” he stressed. “Talk to your parents, talk to your friends, talk to the people that care about you. Don’t go through it alone, don’t try to fix it yourself or just work through because it can make it worse and you don’t want it to get worse before it gets better.”

Luft echoed Onabolu’s remark about communication.

“It’s starting a conversation,” she simply stated, adding that even successful people face mental health challenges.

While resourcing and student offerings are still a bit limited on campus, Onabolu noted that the Counselling Services, Ceridian Life Line, Peer Help Line and various groups in the community are there to help. And a student will get help if they seek it.

After two incidents with mental health concerns, Onabolu said that he’s recovered and that he feels more comfortable and confident in the role that the students have given him. During his term as president, he hopes to continue this discussion on mental health so that students that were dealing with the same issues as him get the help they need — and quick.

But, according to him, the best thing to do is to not take life “too seriously”.

“Just don’t take it too seriously, just enjoy it and you’ll get through it,” he concluded.

“Everything thing will be fine.”

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