University of Waterloo brings in mental health kits to help students

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Photo by Eva Ou

It’s no surprise to students that mental health and wellness has become a greater priority for schools, as many students are currently or have previously experienced issues, especially regarding not knowing how to deal with mental health emergency situations when they occur.

Because of this, for orientation week at the University of Waterloo, first-year students were given an emergency “health kit” to help deal with some of the symptoms associated with panic, anxiety and stress.

These PASS kits, which stands for panic, anxiety and stress support, are a “first aid” solution to many of the overwhelming, suffocating and overstimulating feelings that accompany the emotions that many students experience in times of panic or anxiety.

These kits come with a series of distractions, which can help one overcome these feelings and include a squeezable stress ball, ear plugs, a sleeping mask, a pack of gum and a deck of 25 flash cards with helpful advice and comments for those experiencing anxiety or stress-related symptoms.

Originally circulated in 2015, the kits were created by Tina Chan, a Masters of Science candidate in the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo.

Drawing from her own experience working with the university’s Health and Wellness centre, she offers some perspective into the past initiatives the university has tried to implement to get students interested in the conversation.

In a 2016 interview with Tina Chan, the St. Paul’s University College GreenHouse Fellows, an affiliate of UW, uncovered some the ambitions that drove her to a business venture that she considered to be rather unexpected.

“Like many students, I experienced a lot of stress during my first couple years of university. I saw a lot of my peers drop out of school altogether because of stress. That’s something I think just shouldn’t happen,” Chan said in the press release.

“If you have the ability and opportunity to be in higher education, stress should not be a barrier. There are many mental health supports for students in universities, but there are also a number of barriers.”

In seeing these issues in others, as well as herself, Chan took it upon herself to do something about a pervasive issue that affects many students in a way that they either are incapable of or don’t have the information or resources to change.

According to their website, PASS has three primary goals in promoting the kit: improve access to evidence-based support tools, add urgency to treating mental trauma and understanding symptoms and spark change in the conversation against mental health discrimination.

“I wanted to come up with a way to help students cope better with stress themselves, as well as encouraging them to talk about mental health,” Chan said in the press release.

Karen Ostrander, director of the Student Wellness Centre at the Wilfrid Laurier University, is optimistic of the kit’s potential to do good, but maintains a healthy sense of skepticism at its efficacy.

“I think it’s certainly an interesting idea. It helps address the issue — it’s certainly a way to show that the institution has an interest in [the students],” Ostrander said.

While the PASS kits do provide tools for the immediate relief of anxiety, panic and stress symptoms, they do function — as one might expect from a “first aid kit” — as just a temporary solution.

Ostrander is concerned that, although the kits might be helpful for students experiencing these symptoms, she wonders what the follow-up is with regard to accessing on-campus mental health resources.

“I’m not exactly sure what’s in there as far as where resources [are],” Ostrander said. “[At Laurier, we] give stress balls out at orientation, we have our contact information on it. We want to try and direct towards resources and that sort of thing.”

“It’s not a bad idea, [but] there needs to be multiple angles to try and connect or let people know that there is help.”

Drawing from her own experience working with the university’s Health and Wellness centre, she offers some perspective into the past initiatives the university has tried to implement to get students interested in the conversation.

Mental health issues are not something that students should feel alone in experiencing anymore. In the constantly changing and turbulent world that we are now a part of, there are resources available to reach out to.

“Years and years ago, we used to try and put together an orientation kit with a variety of information and give to all the first year students. They are inundated with so much information, it was hard to know how much of that got through and how much of that just got thrown in a bag and stuffed at the side of their room,” Ostrander said.

“There’s a number of events during orientation week that specifically address mental health, consent, those sorts of things.”

Ostrander feels that it is crucial to let students know that “it’s gonna be a stressful time, absolutely. It’s a transition time: their first time away from home, often the first time away from parents, in a strange environment — and acknowledge maybe that stress is normal.”

While the university has no immediate plans for these kinds of mental health first aid kits, she is nonetheless adamant that their approach to mental health and wellness is the best for Laurier, for the time being.

And although the university doesn’t provide kits like these, she instead reflects on WLU’s efforts to provide a solid foundation and support for any individual who is experiencing mental health issues.

“What we’ve tried to do — it’s certainly been an ongoing process — we’ve been doing a number of things over the years, trying to improve our services and improve the connections between our services,” Ostrander said.

“We’re constantly looking at other supports that we can try and provide and try to meet demand, we’ve developed a series of psycho-educational workshops that we launched last year and that have been building in success that we offer a couple times a week … around certain issues that can certainly impact your mental health: self-care and resilience are one of the topics, food and mood, social media and mental health.”

Mental health and wellness, as well as being able to deal with the associated problems, have become a priority for universities across the country.

Initiatives like PASS and programs at universities like Laurier and Waterloo, are the beginning stages of that conversation being taken more seriously.

In the Spring of 2016, the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment, a national research survey, reported that “within the last 12 months, students reported the following factors affecting their individual academic performance”:

42.9 per cent of respondents reported stress, 33.1 per cent reported anxiety, 21.9 per cent reported depression and 7.2 per cent reported death of a family member.

Additionally, “students reported experiencing the following within the last 12 months:”

89.2 per cent experienced feelings that they were “overwhelmed by all [they] had to do,” 87.8 per cent “felt exhausted,” but not from physical activities, 67.8 per cent “felt very lonely” and 61.4 per cent experienced feelings that “things were hopeless.”

Mental health issues are not something that students should feel alone in experiencing anymore. In the constantly changing and turbulent world that we are now a part of, there are resources available to reach out to.

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