Post-secondary experts give their advice for a healthy school year.
As post-secondary students around the province return to class, many will again confront the mental health challenges that can accompany campus life.
The university environment is fast-paced and transitional, says Ashley Humeniuk, who leads the Health Promotion and Outreach team at the University of Calgary. And, with the ground constantly shifting beneath their feet, many students struggle.
“There’s a lot of pressure, even more so now than when I was a student, to almost do it all,” explains Humeniuk. “Having a degree isn’t necessarily enough anymore; you need to think about volunteering opportunities, getting work experience, and all that kind of stuff … There are a lot of things on our students’ plates. It’s a really dynamic and busy situation to be in.”
In 2013, the University of Calgary’s Wellness Centre adopted a new strategic framework to empower students, faculty, and staff to be proactive about their mental health in the face of these challenges.
Other post-secondary institutions are also changing their approach, vamping up services, and engaging with students in creative ways. There’s now more mental health support available on campuses than ever before – so long as students know how to reach out.
Here are five tips for post-secondary students to best take advantage of that support, and stay mentally well in the year ahead.
Look at the big picture
“When we talk about health, we talk about the seven dimensions of wellness,” says Russell Thomson, who works alongside Humeniuk as Health Promotion Coordinator at the University of Calgary.
Their team’s model describes seven categories of wellbeing: physical, social and cultural, financial, emotional and psychological, spiritual, career and academic, and environmental.
The key for students to understanding health, they say, is to look at the bigger picture. Learning to balance all of these dimensions – recognizing, for example, that diet and exercise are as important to student wellness as grade point average – will help build resiliency over the long term.
According to Humeniuk, social support is crucial in a student’s life – and it can be found both on and off campus.
“There are so many ways to make those connections,” she says, suggesting student clubs, faith-based groups, paid work, volunteering, and even fitness classes as great possibilities for students to engage with others.
Know the services available to you
A presidential task force conducted in 2013 at Mount Royal University (MRU) revealed that a major barrier preventing students from getting help for their mental health was that they were simply unaware of what resources were available.
Wellness Services at the university now offers a wide spectrum of accessible services for credit students, including personal, career, and crisis counselling. They also offer a variety of free workshops on topics such as mindfulness meditation and coping strategies for anxiety.
Meanwhile, the University of Calgary Wellness Centre offers counselling services, as well as peer support and ongoing outreach events like their free and confidential health checks.
For students at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT), counselling, workshops, and crisis support are also available.
Humeniuk’s team uses the web to provide and promote services. The online world has become an ideal place for young people to not only get educated about mental health, but also to get talking about it.
Websites like the University of Calgary’s Resource Guide provide a wealth of information on mental health, including links to useful apps and podcasts. Other resources, such as the UK-based Students Against Depression, give youth the opportunity to connect with each other and share their mental experiences.
Remember that you’re not alone
“Whether or not being in an [post-secondary] institution creates mental health challenges or not – that’s open for debate – the fact is that this age group, 15 to 24 years old, is when we sort of start to see onset of more mental health problems,” says Humeniuk. “So being able to support that is really important.”
According to Statistics Canada, young people in that bracket are more likely than any other age group to experience mental illness and substance abuse-related disorders.
These figures, although concerning, send a powerful message that post-secondary institutions are hoping their students will remember: no one who’s struggling has to go it alone.