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Annual Mental Health Education and Screening Day encourages students to reflect on their well-being

Have you been feeling down, depressed, or hopeless in the last two weeks? Have you been anxious speaking in public, eating around others, or writing while someone watches? How many times in the past week have you found it difficult to stop drinking?

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By Valerie Franklin (The Cascade) – Email

Mental Health - credit Valerie Franklin

UFV counsellor Viktoria Ivanova sits in one of the private, covered cubicles where students can confidentially review the results of their mental wellbeing self-tests with a counsellor.

Have you been feeling down, depressed, or hopeless in the last two weeks? Have you been anxious speaking in public, eating around others, or writing while someone watches? How many times in the past week have you found it difficult to stop drinking?

These are some of the questions on the mental health self-test that was administered to UFV students during UFV’s annual Mental Health Education and Screening Day, a free interactive event that connects students with services and resources to support their mental health.

This year’s event, which took place from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 8, was a collaborative effort between the counselling department, the student psychology association, and the mental health awareness association. UFV’s participation is in coordination with Beyond the Blues, an annual campaign by the Canadian Mental Health Association that facilitates similar events around the province throughout October and November.

“Our purpose is to use the UFV community as a public platform to reduce the stigma and the shame surrounding mental health or mental diagnoses, and to really open it up in a very warm and welcoming way for community members, but primarily our students,” says Tia Noble, head of UFV’s counselling department.

The screening process

Tables offering resources were set up in three areas on the Abbotsford campus: outside Tim Horton’s, at Student Life in the SUB, and outside the cafeteria. Student volunteers engaged passers-by and handed out resource pamphlets, stickers, magnets, candy, and, most importantly, a self-test questionnaire consisting of four different screens: a depression screen, an anxiety screen, a risky drinking screen, and a well-being screen. In contrast to the first three, the well-being screen helps students recognize their strengths and areas where they may have more support around them than they realize.

“It’s not only targeting and screening for students at risk, it’s actually resourcing students and emphasizing the aspects of their lives that are positive and showing resilience, and really acknowledging and naming the resources that they already have,” explains Noble.

Following the self-tests, UFV counsellors are available to sit privately with students and discuss their results in quiet, covered cubicles that help ensure confidentiality. Noble says if there is an indication of risk or areas where the student needs support, the counsellor may refer them to a community agency or resource centre that can provide more specialized support, or to UFV counselling services. These sit-down sessions last 10 to 15 minutes, unless more time is needed to work through a larger issue.

“If there are significant indicators that the student is really struggling, a counsellor may use their clinical judgement and go to a clinic space that we have dedicated for any crisis, high-risk appointments,” says Noble. “We have different layers of support that are provided on that day, in addition to the education and the screening component.”

Fighting stigma

Thanks to initiatives like the Mental Health Education and Screening Day, the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness is gradually lifting; according to research gathered by Bell’s “Let’s Talk” initiative, 57 per cent of Canadians believe that there is less stigma associated with mental illness in 2015 than there was five years ago. However, many still find it difficult to discuss their mental health with their friends, families, employers, and instructors.

“My goal, the reason I’m volunteering, is to help people understand that it’s nothing to be ashamed of,” says volunteer Dawn Bright, a social work student. “Mental illness has many names and many faces. It’s more normal than they thought … We need to remember it’s a medical condition; why should people be embarrassed?”

Social work student and volunteer Kim Hampson said that the event was a valuable opportunity for students in need of support, as well as an important way to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of mental health.

“Mental health generally isn’t talked about. It’s important to talk about it,” she said, adding, “I would definitely volunteer again.”

“So often students can feel alone in the midst of stress, anxiety, whatever mental health crisis perhaps they’re having, or just the stress of student life, and I want to emphasize that there’s always options and support, whether it’s through counselling services or other community supports, or the Fraser Health crisis line,” says Noble.

Bright also emphasizes that part of the event’s importance is relieving the isolation that mental illness can bring — an important part of the healing process.

“You’re not alone,” she says. “You don’t have to suffer alone.”

Students in crisis

As though the stresses of balancing school, life, and work aren’t enough, the average post-secondary student is at an age where mental illness is most likely to manifest itself. According to Statistics Canada, people between the ages of 15 and 24 are more likely to experience mental illness than any other age group.

“What happens is … the positive and the negative stresses that come with being a student can often really surface mental health issues, or intensify mental health symptoms,” says Noble. “This event tries to create an opportunity to reach those students who may have been suffering alone, or [are] unaware that some of their mental health issues are intensifying.”

Increasing curiosity

According to Noble, there’s been an increase every year in the number of students who show interest or start conversations with a counsellor or student volunteer. She adds that there seems to be an increasing openness and curiosity surrounding the topic of mental health.

“That’s a really important piece, to be curious about myself, and my mind, and my mental well-being. It’s really important, and we’re seeing that students are really curious. They want to learn, and they want to learn a lot about themselves,” she says.

Bright estimates that she talked to about a hundred students, and that 75 per cent of passers-by had at least helped themselves to a pamphlet or the other resources available. Fellow student volunteers Mohit Bassi and Paul van der Endt estimate that they served 150 students just in the afternoon at the Tim Horton’s location, which experienced the greatest volume of foot traffic.

“I think the more discussion, the more sharing, the more bonding that we can do around mental well-being, and the more we can have it out in the community, is extremely important. It’s not just coming in for confidential counselling services; there’s a real kind of public health and a stigma-reducing initiative behind this,” says Noble.

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