Students are first therapists for each other

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Mental health is a priority that affects all avenues of Fiqir Worku’s life and work. She believes that concern for mental health should be a priority in the everyday lives of UW community members.

“I just think it needs to be a university wide mission, not just counselling services,” Worku, a recent Health Studies grad, said. “Mental health is everything, it’s not just when you’re having a crisis. But we do not embed that in the foundational structure. We say if you’re sad, go see someone. But if you’re having a good day, you can still go see someone to ask for coping strategies so I can manage my workload. That is all mental health.”

Over the last few years, UW has lost and mourned many students. Each suicide is followed by discussions on mental health and what the university can do to improve the state of student mental health on campus.

However, before students access formal resources for mental health help, they turn to friends, family, and some informal services that offer peer support as well. Students become the first counsellors and therapists for other students. Although peer support and mental health first aid training has become more common, many people are still uncomfortable with dealing with mental health issues.

Walter Mittelstaedt, a director in Campus Wellness, suggests that students practice active listening without judgement. When a peer is facing mental health issues, it is important to not only refer them to formal services, but also make sure they are getting the help they need.

“Be somewhat gently persistent in terms of helping them get [help]. It’s not so much about ‘you should call’, but sometimes it’s ‘can I go with you?’ or ‘can I sit with you when you’re making that call?’ So really being there with them,” he said. “I caution trying to get into too much intervention when there’s really serious situations/behaviour that are coming to the forefront like suicidal ideation, I wouldn’t want to put that on a peer or friend to say you need to deal with that.”

Hanan Thibeh, the co-coordinator of RAISE, believes in the importance of self-reflection and unlearning. Thibeh recognizes that she was raised in a culture where education was placed above all else, and she has had to unlearn that aspect of her personality.

“For me, personally, it was self-reflection and unlearning what my parents instilled in [me], and taking the good and leaving the bad, type of mentality. And realising school is important, but it’s not the end-all, it’s not the highest priority. My mental health is number one. I had to take a step back and say, ‘okay what can I do to do that?’” she said.

Thibeh said UW students compare their self-worth to marks. She said that students entering first year are often humbled by the marks they receive, but they should find a community that they fit into and value themselves as a person.

“One thing I personally had to unlearn was tying your value to your marks. […] I think learning to find yourself outside of academics, finding something that gives you meaning in life outside of academics could be helpful. Which is why extracurricular is important,” she said.

A person’s informal support system is a key to maintaining good mental health, Mittelstaedt said. He believes that strong social support systems can help individuals cope with stress.

“We’re really strong believers that people can get a lot of help through having a supportive social network. So rather than struggling with that on your own, having already made group of friends who will listen, be supportive, and point you in the direction of where to get help,” he said.

Thibeh also said that finding a community is important and her community has played a major role in making her the person that she is today.

“Finding a community you mesh well with and [that] can be a good support group [is important]… I think, without those groups in my university career, I would not be where I am today,” she said.

Mittelstaedt also emphasized the need for increased mental health literacy. He said that it is important for students to recognize symptoms of mental health issues and know basic coping mechanisms.

Amanda Fitzpatrick, VP Student Life, believes the services need better marketing. She said she learned a lot about the services offered on campus in the early years of her university career.

“I’ve definitely seen how much the services have grown and the new services that have been created like RAISE and even MATES has just grown exponentially and they have groups all across campus so you can access that care anywhere,” she said. “We’re also trying to market it better so just more students know about the mental health resources that are available.”

Peer support provided by services such as the Glow Centre, the Women’s Centre, RAISE, and UW MATES is key in filling in the gaps in formal mental healthcare, Fitzpatrick said. Students that provide peer support services may not have the education of a professional therapist, but they are willing and equipped to have difficult conversations, she said.

“We might not have the same training across the board but we make sure that any student we’re putting in a position to offer peer support has been trained and is ready to have difficult conversations. And I think that one of the main things that peer support helps with is just breaking down the stigma of having convos about mental health […] it’s really just changing campus culture…” she said.

Fitzpatrick stated the number of students on campus with peer support training is on the rise. That means all students have better access to peer support services. Worku sees peer support services as a safety net for students to access mental healthcare.

“I think [peer support] provides a safety net for students to know if something does happen, they have a community behind them. Worst come to worse, they have a place where someone can listen to them. They have a place where they can be understood and people might have similar experiences as them,” she said.

Peer support services do not have standardized training – it can vary from lasting for a few hours to over several days. Thibeh and Worku expressed the need for training on more explicit content so that peer support volunteers can help students more. Worku also said that mental health needs to transcend formal counselling and mental health service to become a part of every aspect of culture.

“The university needs to foster that culture of how can we as teach our students how to be aware of mental health issues on the get go. If you’re in your first year off university you’re not taught to do things like self care. And you’re coming from a competitive spirit, as grade 12 is difficult for everyone trying to get in,” Thibeh said.

Mittelstaedt said, although formal services can have months-long waiting times, other options are available to students – these include same-day appointments to handle crisis situations, workshops for coping mechanisms, and much more. In the future, the university hopes to introduce a method of digital mental healthcare, where students that are on co-op or away from campus for other reasons, can access mental healthcare services via Skype.

Tom Ruttan, a director in Campus Wellness, said changing one’s perspective helps change the culture.

“Mental health issues are not happening because the person is lazy or weak or somehow inferior, everyone has a story and everyone has things that they struggle with. Everybody. Many people don’t tell anybody, but everybody does [have them],” he said.

“One of [my] supervisors told me, ‘Tom, everybody you see,’ every adult, ‘every adult you see has loved somebody, they have lost somebody, and they can do something better than almost anyone,’ and with that kind of frame, I kind of see people differently,” Ruttan said. “It just helps me understand that everybody has things that they struggle with and stories that are important to them.”