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    Chair boosts mental health awareness

    Student leaders from the Caring Campus Project meet with the team’s principal investigators — Heather Stuart (middle row, centre) Shu-Ping Chen (middle row, left) and Terry Krupa (middle row, right). (Supplied photo)

    When Queen’s University researcher Heather Stuart was appointed the inaugural Bell Canada Mental Health and Anti-Stigma Chair in February 2012, she had no idea how many people would reach out to her with their personal experiences around mental health issues.

    “The sheer onslaught of response took me by surprise,” recalls Dr. Stuart, a professor of Public Health Sciences, with cross-appointments in Psychiatry and Rehabilitation Therapy. “The stories I heard – from students, parents, celebrities and people from all walks of life, including family members of those who had died by suicide – were heartwrenching. They all wanted to tell me how important it was that someone was finally looking into mental illness-related stigma.”

    The five-year, $1-million appointment – the first such research chair in the world – is funded by Bell Canada to build better practices in anti-stigma programming and to create rich student training opportunities. Dr. Stuart contributes regularly to the scientific literature on mental health and anti-stigma research; supervises and mentors research trainees; and aids knowledge translation through publications, reports, conferences, webinars and outreach, assisting community partners to create better anti-stigma programming practices.

    An important component of her outreach is to organize and present the interactive Annual Bell Lecture, to be held this year in Halifax.

    Now entering her third year as chair, Dr. Stuart and colleagues, Shu-Ping Chen (Mental Health Commission of Canada Post-Doctoral Fellow) and Terry Krupa (School of Rehabilitation Therapy) are partnering with Movember Canada to conduct the Caring Campus Project. This three-year initiative is aimed at first-year male students at Queen’s, Dalhousie and University of Calgary – a population where 65 per cent report risky or hazardous drinking patterns. The project focuses on reducing substance misuse (drugs and alcohol) and the stigma associated with it, and fostering student leaders to create a more supportive and caring environment on campus.

    “Conducting this project under the auspices of the Bell chair is raising awareness in the minds of students and others that substance use and mental health are integrally tied,” says Dr. Stuart. “Having my time freed up by the chair has enabled our team to leverage Movember funding to make this project possible.”

    The Caring Campus Project, which currently employs 24 student leaders, organizes educational outreach activities, responsible social events, an online chat room to discuss issues, and social media initiatives reclaiming the term “Queen’s For the Boys” to associate it with supporting each other in a positive, healthy way.

    Student comments posted on these websites underscore both the interest and the need being tapped by this project:

    "Keep up the mental health advertising. Talking about it during Orientation helped me find the courage to get help."

    "A lot of people I know are scared to seek help because they are afraid they will be ridiculed."

    "I experienced two incidents this year where my friend attempted suicide as a result of mental health issues as well as substance abuse, and Queen’s helped me deal with the situation in a timely and comforting manner.”

    For Dr. Stuart, this type of “implementation research” – partnering with others to deliver an intervention and then evaluating it – is at the heart of her anti-stigma work, and she is delighted to see it bearing fruit. In her remaining two years as Bell chair, she looks forward to expanding on this project and the many other initiatives made possible by her appointment.

    Donor-funded faculty positions  – chairs, professorships and post-doctoral fellowships – enable Queen’s to recognize and attract top researchers and scholars, both from within the university and from around the world. The terms of reference for these positions, which require Senate approval, outline how the funding will be used. This may include salary, equipment costs and other resources needed by the holder. Queen’s first chair was named for Sir John A MacDonald in 1899 and was held by Adam Shortt, the university’s first full-time professor of politics and economics. Since the beginning of the Initiative Campaign in 2006, attracting donations to support these positions has been a priority.