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Creating a caring campus

Caring Campus Project
The Caring Campus Project is aimed at creating a campus-wide effort to improve mental health as it relates to substance use. Andrei Lyskov, left, René Puerta , centre, and Josh Decaire are among those working to make the effort a reality. (University Communications)

Movember is about raising awareness of men’s health issues and funds to support research. It’s also about having fun while doing it.

Here at Queen’s University, there is also a direct link from the fundraising to the work that is taking place.

The Caring Campus Project was created earlier this year thanks to a $1.7 million grant from Movember Canada. The three-year project – which involves a team of 24 male students, primarily in second year from a variety of disciplines – is aimed at creating a campus-wide effort to improve mental health as it relates to substance use, particularly for first-year male students.

In its first year, the project, led by Heather Stuart (Centre for Health Services and Policy Research and Public Health Sciences) and colleagues Shu-Ping Chen (Public Health Sciences) and Terry Krupa (School of Rehabilitation Therapy), will take place at Queen’s University but will subsequently branch out to the University of Calgary and Dalhousie University.

However, as research assistant Josh Decaire points out, the groundwork will be completed at Queen’s. He says the goal of hiring the students is that they will be running different initiatives and activities across campus aimed at raising awareness about the links between mental health and substance abuse.

“There's a lot of talk about mental health everywhere now but making the link with substance abuse doesn't seem to be as widely known,” Mr. Decaire says.

Following a summit in September the students have formed four groups, each with a different component to the overall campaign.

A pilot survey completed earlier this year showed that the disconnect is clear.

“As a student I was definitely interested in seeing what the data showed because I never really thought about how our drinking habits could affect other people,” says René Puerta (Com’17). “That's something you might think that, okay, an alcoholic will have impacts on their family but a student who might be a two or three day a week drinker does as well. That's one of the bigger messages I would like to get across in this campaign.”

Mr. Puerta is part of the social media team that will be raising awareness through online platforms like Twitter and Facebook and handing out stickers, but also trying to foster change in attitudes toward drinking and behaviour among male students.

The main goal for the team he says is “reclaiming” the phrase “For The Boys,” which currently is associated with the degrading of women and reckless drinking. The team is now promoting the hashtag #QFTB – Queen's For The Boys – but this time meaning support for those in need.

Still, he knows that changing those attitudes, especially among first-year students, won’t be easy. Drinking and university life are intrinsically linked and are often portrayed in major media, particularly in film, he points out.

“We are trying to change years and years of social conditioning where university students are expected to drink heavily, when in reality there are so many other things to do,” he says. “It will be hard to overcome those expectations.”

Andrei Lyskov’s (Com’17) team is creating an anonymous online forum to help those seeking support. He says that one of the research pieces showed that many people felt they didn't have anyone they could talk to due to overwhelming demand on resources and the stigma associated with seeking support.

“So our approach is a very preliminary approach to the issue of mental health and I think that if we are able to lower the number of students with mental health problems that in turn will help lower the amount of students abusing alcohol because there is typically a high correlation between drinking a lot and some sort of mental health issue,” he says.

He also says that creating a more caring campus that takes into account that other people might not share the same views is what university is about, and a key part of the campaign.

“I think the key is just to start those hard conversations. So with the social media campaign and putting up the stickers around campus it will start people talking about the campaign,” he says. “It also will hopefully raise awareness, particularly about the issues that many first-year males face like mental health and drinking.”

Another survey will be completed this spring, following the same basic outline and Mr. Decaire says Caring Campus will be looking for some positive results from the ongoing efforts, including personal usage patterns, perceptions of other people’s usage patterns and feelings for the campus culture as a whole.

“We are hoping that when we do the survey again in the spring semester we will see changes or some results indicating that there has been an impact of some kind,” he says.

For more information on the project go to caringcampus.ca.