The ticket to better mental health
When Samuel Singh (a pseudonym) arrived at Queen’s on a scholarship in the fall of 2011 from out west, he didn’t know anyone. Back home, he’d always lived with his parents and brother. But when he arrived on campus he quickly made friends with members of his orientation group and his residence floormates. He started classes in the Faculty of Arts and Science, got involved in campus life, and regularly saw family members who live in the Kingston area.
But Sam was homesick. His first year at Queen’s was fun, but it was anything but easy. “It’s difficult to come from a really supportive family and community to a new place all by yourself,” he says. He experienced bouts of intense anxiety. He tried to manage them alone, but at times, they became overwhelming. “The transition into adulthood from high school is a big mental jump,” he says. “I got to the point when I was in the middle of an anxiety episode that I thought ‘I need to go to Health Counselling and Disability Services [HCDS].’ “
Sam’s orientation leader and his floor don both had told him about the services offered at HCDS, and he knew it was close by. He sought help and learned how to manage anxiety and stress. “I was lucky to have had the opportunity to access the resources that are here and to work through everything,” he says. “It’s about optimism and putting in the work.”
Sam’s experience is not uncommon, says HCDS director Mike Condra, MA’78, PhD’82, and an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology.
“So many high-achieving students get here and find themselves surrounded by peers who are just as accomplished as they are,” he says. “It can take some time to adjust and renew your confidence. Many students are stressed by their new academic and social world. But we’re here to help if that happens.”
Each year students make more than 25,000 visits to HCDS, where they receive support and care for a range of physical and mental health concerns, as well as academic accommodations for disabilities.
Sam’s experiences led him to volunteer in his second year as a Peer Health Educator in HCDS’s Health Promotion unit. The unit co-ordinates outreach and education that support healthy choices and lifestyles. Sam now leads the unit’s social media program and runs workshops in residences on healthy eating, safe alcohol consumption, sexual health, and good sleep habits.
“The biggest piece of advice I now have for my fellow students is to get enough sleep,” he says. “It’s the perfect regulator. If you get enough sleep, a lot of other things fall into place; it makes everything better.”
Sam has been happily surprised that so many first-year students he has spoken with exercise regularly and pay attention to what they eat. “That’s different from my first year,” he notes. “I didn’t work out, and I didn’t think about food; I just ate.”
Sam has also noticed an increasing awareness of the importance of mental health. As a result, he does whatever he can to encourage help-seeking behaviours among his peers. “In one of my biology labs, I overheard someone say he had a housemate who had highs and lows,” he says. “I suggested that person go to HCDS, and the guy said he’d already suggested that to his friend. Everyone knows about HCDS. It’s a big deal.
“Queen’s is being extremely proactive about making people aware of campus mental health resources and about fostering a positive space for students who need access to these resources.”
Queen’s also recognizes the value of peer interaction and is one of the few universities in Canada at which students themselves manage the University’s health promotion Facebook page and Twitter feed.
“We give our trained volunteers information and tools and we monitor the pages, but students determine the content,” says Health Promotion Coordinator Beth Doxsee, MA’06. “It’s an effective way to get the word out and engage students.”
She adds that a recent article about anxiety posted to the “Queen’s Be Well-Do Well” Facebook page got more “likes” than any other article posted this year.
And Beth doesn’t have any problem recruiting student volunteers to help run her programs, which include pet therapy, yoga in residences, a knitting group, creating original videos, and exam care packages that include healthy snacks and study tips.
“Students genuinely feel a connection to the University and want to impact other people because others have impacted them,” she says. “Maybe it was their Gael or don or someone they’ve met – students want to do something to help.”
When Beth sought volunteers for 2013-14, she received 50 applications for 15 positions. Eventually, she would like to offer some paid internship positions for the students in the unit. “We deliver more than 250 outreach initiatives every academic term,” she says. “But there is always more we can do to positively impact the lives of our students.”
Lindsay Reynolds, Artsci’13 and Katie Conway, Artsci’13, have spent their undergrad years at Queen’s working in peer health education and support. Katie was the 2012-2013 AMS Social Issues Commissioner while Lindsay was the 2012-2013 director of the AMS Peer Support Centre. Lindsay was Katie’s Gael – their group still keeps in touch – and the two women are committed to increasing student awareness about mental health and mental illness and making a difference.
They’re particularly proud of a new workshop that was developed in partnership by the AMS Peer Support Centre, the AMS’s Mental Health Awareness Committee, Residence Life, and HCDS’ Health Promotion unit to help combat the stigma of mental health issues. The group also consulted with Prof. Heather Stuart (Community Health and Epidemiology), the world-first Bell Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Research Chair.
The workshop was held 16 times over the winter and spring in residences, and it focused on student volunteers who talked about their personal experiences with depression, anxiety, or eating disorders – the three most common mental health problems on campus – as a way of increasing understanding and empathy among their peers. This “contact-based” educational approach has been proven to be among the most effective methods of reducing stigma.
“You can feel a sense of acceptance in the room,” Lindsay says. “The questions being asked by the participants are amazing.”
The workshop is believed to be the first of its kind at an Ontario university, and it has been recognized with the 2013 Queen’s Human Rights Initiative Award.
Lindsay hopes the workshop will help promote more openness and help-seeking behaviour among students, something she and Katie have noticed has been growing in their five years on campus.
“Where the campus was then and where is it now is really different,” Katie says. “You can now say ‘I went to see a counselor today at HCDS,’ and nobody will judge you. People are dedicated to creating a more supportive campus, to eradicating stigma and creating a more inclusive community.”
The anti-stigma workshop aligns with 116 recommendations made last November by the Principal’s Commission on Mental Health. The Commission spent a year developing a framework for a mental health strategy for Queen’s (www.queensu.ca/cmh/index.html). An overall implementation plan is being developed for the recommendations. Among the most recent initiatives are an Advisory Committee on Academic Accommodations and a business-card-sized “green card” for students, which lists mental health information and important phone numbers. This resource was produced by the University in partnership with the AMS and the Society of Graduate and Professional Students and follows a “green folder” that was sent to all faculty and staff last fall.
“The commission’s recommendations are wide-ranging and more than half are in progress or completed,” says Vice-Provost and Dean of Student Affairs Ann Tierney, Law’89, MPA’2004, who was one of the five commissioners. “One of the things we’re working on is a ‘University 101’-type transition program for first-years. We want to help them develop skills they need to manage the personal, emotional, and academic transitions from high school to university.”
Student Affairs is also developing an early-alert pilot program that will flag first-year students who are struggling academically in first term. A similar model is being explored to flag second-year students who are at risk of academic probation. The University would reach out to these students to offer support from peers and professionals.
These and other student health and wellness projects have been identified as priorities for the University’s $500-million Initiative Campaign.
“There are many ways that supporters can help us address the critical issues of student health and wellness,” says Principal Daniel Woolf, who has initiated a post-secondary network on student mental health with his peers at five other Canadian universities. “Our students are helping to lead the way to find innovative approaches to building community and reducing stigma about mental health issues. We’ll continue to work with them to develop new services and programs that encourage everyone to seek help if and when they need it.”
Sam Singh applauds such initiatives. Reflecting back on his experiences in first year, he says he learned a lot and has grown and matured. He also feels that his volunteer efforts are making a difference for others. “Sharing experiences is a staple at Queen’s,” he says. “I walk away from each workshop feeling that it has had a positive impact.”