The concept of balance can often be challenging for university students who are juggling course loads with physical health, employment, social and extracurricular activities, among other pursuits. However, achieving and maintaining balance is a learning process and directly contributes to each student’s unique mental health, something that everyone has.
On Nov. 2-6, the University of Saskatchewan is hosting Mental Health Awareness Week, an initiative organized by the U of S Students’ Union in collaboration with various groups and centres across campus. Through a variety of workshops and activities, the initiative aims to bring awareness to mental wellness and shed light on common misconceptions in an effort to erase lingering stigmas associated with mental health and illness.
The week will culminate on Friday, Nov. 6 with the USSU Peace of Mind event at Louis’ Loft, featuring a panel of student guest speakers sharing their stories, as well as an art auction with proceeds going to an organization that supports student mental health.
Jack Saddleback, USSU president and mental health advocate, is currently pursuing a campus-wide mental health strategy, a major point carried over from his presidential platform.
“The U of S has great services and supports; they are amazing and they strive to meet the need, but what we’re missing is an actual direction in regards to dealing with mental health across the campus. Therefore, a mental health strategy would help to give that direction to the whole campus community,” Saddleback said.
Diagnosed with severe depression as a teenager, Saddleback feels a strong personal connection to this particular initiative and hopes to enlighten student perspectives surrounding mental health.
“I had teen depression and I had a subsequent suicide attempt that landed me in the hospital twice and since then, after quite a lot of support from my family as well as my support networks, I have been well on my way on the road to recovery and I have been working since then to be able to change stigma across Canada,” Saddleback said.
As a surge in attention surrounding mental health continues with initiatives such as Mental Health Awareness Week, it is clear that Saddleback is not alone. In fact, in the span of less than one week, over 500 U of S students responded to a brief mental health poll released by the Sheaf online, indicating that they have a personal relationship with some form of mental illness. These results reinforce the necessity for increased awareness and understanding surrounding mental health and its related afflictions.
Without recognizing the need for open-minded acceptance and understanding on campus, Saddleback worries students may be less inclined to seek help or openly discuss their potential struggles.
“When looking at how it is just a matter of being unaware, that’s a huge thing because we seem to downplay a lot or internalize that struggle, and say ‘Oh, I am just feeling really bad this day.’ Well, when that day turns into 347, that obviously is a little bit of an indicator that something’s going on,” Saddleback said.
Moreover, he acknowledges that it is often a difficult, though necessary, journey to acceptance and seeking support.
“I’m not saying that’s an easy step — it’s a really hard one, but it’s a courageous step in the right direction of finding out how I can help myself by letting others help me,” Saddleback said.
The U of S houses a number of campus services available for students to foster their mental well-being and seek support as needed. Student Counselling Services, Disability Services for Students, Peer Health Mentors, as well as the USSU Help Centre, Pride Centre and Women’s Centre, all offer free support systems and welcoming environments for students seeking assistance with mental health management.
Maxine Kinakin, DSS manager and associate registrar for accommodations, points out that the purpose of the program is to assist the university in meeting the requirements laid out in Saskatchewan’s human rights legislation about their duty to accommodate individuals with disabilities. In this way, DSS offers support services such as reduced course loads and note-taking, among other disability-specific accommodations.
Employed with the program for the last 14 years, Kinakin provides some insight into the nature of its registrants.
“I ran a report, and we have just over 1,400 students registered with the DSS office, and of that, 780 are registered with mental health disabilities; learning disabilities do not fall into the category of mental health diagnoses,” Kinakin said.
Addressing some misconceptions she has encountered over the years, Kinakin reassures the general student body that DSS students are expected to meet all of the same academic requirements in their program as students without disabilities.
“Reasonable academic accommodations level the playing field. It puts them at the starting line with everyone else,” Kinakin said. “It’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that our university community is supportive and encouraging to all individuals.”
In an effort to reinforce the validity of what Kinakin deems “invisible disabilities,” she refers to a tangible example with the aim of putting things into perspective for those individuals still unclear on what mental illness can mean.
“I would liken it to saying to someone who wears spectacles, ‘Actually, you are going to have to take those off. You can’t wear your glasses.’ Which would then put them at a disadvantage but with their glasses on, they’re good. I mean, nobody would even think to say that to somebody who wears glasses, so why would we think to say to someone who needs extra time for exams, ‘Actually, you can’t have that,’” Kinakin said.
Di Decaire, fourth-year fine arts student, is a representation of the interconnectivity of these seemingly invisible illnesses, revealing that she lives with severe depression, seasonal affective disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and at one time had even been diagnosed with an eating disorder as well. This combination led her to drop out of university and nearly give up on life entirely.
Decaire will be one of four panelists at the USSU Peace of Mind event and is looking forward to sharing her story with those students in attendance.
“I’ll be talking about depression and suicide because I’ve had suicidal attempts and thoughts ever since I’ve been about 13 years old — I always have suicidal thoughts, everyday,” Decaire said. “Some days, it is a real push to get out that door.”
Since returning to university, Decaire has sought solace in blank canvases and paint palettes and recognizes the importance of having a healthy way to address what she deems as “the elephant in the room” — her constant mental shift to suicidal tendencies. Through art, Decaire has been able to start healing.
Although Decaire hopes people will take comfort in her perspective, she encourages students to reach out in any way they can.
“There are all kinds of people with all kinds of diagnoses. You’re not alone. It’s ok to talk. It’s ok to say, ‘I want to go for coffee, do you want to go for coffee?’ Get that connection. It doesn’t have to be with a doctor or a nurse. Sometimes all you need is a friend. Sometimes that shoulder is all you need, more than anything else,” Decaire said.
Shiney Choudhary, third-year psychology student and peer health mentor, recently came to the U of S from India and speaks to some of the mental anguish that new students may encounter.
“I have also struggled with my mental health and I get stressed out. I wanted to share my experiences to help out other students because as an undergraduate, you have a lot more going on. It could be your first time away from home or first time in a new or big city or dealing with so many classes, and so many mid-terms and so many papers,” Choudhary said.
As a peer health mentor, Choudhary admits that she is not qualified to provide counseling or professional guidance but insists the group is in place to act as a liaison for students who are not sure where else to turn. She encourages all students to adopt this sentiment and keep an open mind when it comes to their peers who may be struggling.
“I think the most important thing is just keeping judgments aside. Sometimes students just need someone to talk to. It doesn’t have to be a very serious issue, it could be something as simple as, ‘My professor just gave me a 70 when I was expecting a 90.’ Be the kind of person who is willing to listen, because only if you listen and understand, then you can really help someone,” Choudhary said.
Kay-Lynne Collier, first-year psychology student, is spearheading an additional support system on campus geared toward fostering students’ mental well-being and creating a safe space to work towards increased awareness and acceptance.
Jack.org is a national network of students working to transform ideas about mental health, and Collier is in the process of ratifying Jack.org USask and encourages students to get involved.
“The goal of the group and the organization is to make [mental health] just as easy and acceptable to talk about as it is to talk about physical health, because we all have brains and so we all have mental health that we need to take care of. It’s really important that students know that they can have these conversations,” Collier said.
The presence of such a group on campus is important for Collier because she believes that students are often consumed by campus life as it is.
“One of the number one things that university students deal with when it comes to their mental health is stress, and a lot of them don’t acknowledge that they have stress because they think that they’re too busy to take care of it,” Collier said. “If anyone just takes a few minutes, even to just have a moment of self-care; go watch one of your favorite shows on Netflix, or just chill out for a bit, go have a bath, just do something to take care of yourself and as soon as you do that, it will make you even more productive.”
What it comes down to for Collier is that everyone has mental health and at times, it may be a struggle to strike the perfect life balance. However, she encourages students to remain optimistic.
“Although things may be hard right now, there is truth to the saying that everything is going to be okay — because no matter how bad a situation is, it is always going to be okay. Even if it’s not good, it’s going to be okay.”
Keighlagh Donovan / News Editor
Infograph: Jeremy Britz / Graphics Editor
Image: Di Decaire / Supplied