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Making mental health matter on campus

It can be a hard time of year for post-secondary students struggling to balance the sometimes all-encompassing demands of looming deadlines and back-to-back midterms, while juggling work and personal life, for some at an institution far from home.

It can be a hard time of year for post-secondary students struggling to balance the sometimes all-encompassing demands of looming deadlines and back-to-back midterms, while juggling work and personal life, for some at an institution far from home.

It's the unique challenges of student life and its impact on their mental health that prompted UNBC students to bring to campus The Jack Project, a country-wide student initiative to tackle stigma around mental health and improve education on its effects.

"There is a lot of stress in this environment," said Julia MacDonald, 24.

"University is a really big time when students form habits for their future as well as the workforce," added Valerie Ward, 21. "If they can't cope with studying and all the stresses of that, I think it definitely radiates into the workforce."

The two masters in community health science students staffed their organization's booth this week at UNBC's inaugural Thrive Week, a five-day event that partnered with community organizations and featured workshops that addressed mindfulness and stress-relieving activities, nutrition and discussions on self-care strategies.

The two, who are both from Ontario and in their first semester at the university, said it's a good first step and they're seeing a lot of interest and support in the academic community.

"One of the things we both noticed is how disjointed the current mental health initiatives are [at UNBC], so our big focus is trying to unite it, bringing it together so people know what's going on," said Ward.

They said it's important to involve students in campus approaches to mental health, as they are better able to relate to student problems, and peers can be less intimidating than professors.

Although conversations around mental illness are becoming more commonplace, Ward said it is still dismissed. She recalled an instance where a friend tried to speak to her professor about her anxiety, but was asked to provide proof.

"I think that's really common on campuses," Ward said. "Where the profs aren't aware of it or they won't acknowledge it because there's no visible paperwork or visible conditions."

Thrive Week has a full-campus approach, focusing on mental health for faculty, staff and students, says organizer Carleigh Benoit, who works in human resources at UNBC.

"There's growing amount of research and literature that have identified stress, depression, and anxiety as growing issues across the globe and especially in workplaces," said Benoit, adding the season can also have an impact. "As winter comes we tend to become more recluse or spend more time indoors."

And it's not just in Prince George; Benoit said Thrive Week is a cross-Canada university initiative.

"The idea of thriving is about how do we build positive mental health? What are the things we do to help cope with mental stress?" said Benoit, adding it's also "to make the campus aware of what is available here already because in such a large institution it's so easy to forget what everyone doing."

Benoit said the university has a lot of available services, including the wellness centre, support groups, nutrition counselling and legal advice.

Although the College of New Caledonia hasn't organized its awareness day - Beyond the Blues - for two years, the college has a year-round program that encourages professors to refer students to the counselling department.

Back on Track saw 107 referrals in the last school year. Of that group 64 per cent reported experiencing anxiety and 39 per cent experienced depression, said counsellor Tammy Skomorowski said.

"The top three things that students access support for are stress, anxiety and depression," she said.

In November, Skomorowski sees a large spike in student visits, typically spurred by midterm stress. Even so, she's noticed as conversations on mental health become more open, students are showing up at her door earlier in the year.

"We love those students because they're very pro-active. They're coming in, they're getting set up with supports before things get too heavy," she said. "For a student it's about time management, organization, recognizing how much pressure they're maybe putting on themselves, making sure that they're taking breaks, being aware and being honest about their limits."

Both CNC and UNBC offer reading breaks in the second semester.

Ward and MacDonald say there's a case for having one in the first semester too, like some universities in Ontario.

"I think it should be definitely across all schools to have that break because the first semester getting back into the swing of things can be pretty tough," MacDonald said.

With so many diverse programs and practicum-focused degrees at the college, Skomorowski said it can be difficult to carve out that time. Some won't see a break until March.

"Some of those students they really struggle trying to get through to March," said Skomorowski, adding she understands that the structure of the course requirements makes taking breaks a problem. "As a counsellor, I question how healthy is that for your student."

Ultimately, she said she tells students to eat healthy, make sure they're getting sleep and taking time to be physically active. For any person, she said it's important to be mindful of substance use, including cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.

Success looks different for every student, she said.

"For some students, it means recognizing they're in the wrong program and changing, taking time off school whereas for another student success might be getting a C grade, but for somebody else it might be getting that A and receiving a scholarship," Skomorowski said.

"I always tell students, school is not a sprint. It's more like a marathon."