Wamsley: Adapt. Evaluate. Modify. Working toward de-stigmatizing mental health


Margaret Trudeau delivers the 2012 Faculty of Health Science Distinguished Lecture, entitled Exploring Mental Health Issues, at 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1 in Alumni Hall. Admission and parking are free. (Parking available in Springett and Arthur and Sonia Labatt Health Sciences Building parking lots.)

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Tonight, the Faculty of Health Sciences welcomes Margaret Trudeau to Alumni Hall for her talk, Exploring Mental Health Issues. This event is part of our ongoing commitment to raise campus awareness about mental health issues – an implicit promise to Eric Windeler, who spoke at Western in 2011 on behalf of The Jack Project, named for Eric’s son, Jack, who took his own life while at Queen’s University in 2010.

Jack didn’t ask for attention to himself in the note he left, but he expressed the hope that others in need would be helped.

It’s hard not to be permanently affected by The Jack Project – the question is, what to do?

This week, just days before the Trudeau lecture, I reached for a shirt and tie in my closet, as I always do, and there in the back was the green T-shirt – Stomp on Stigma – Western Wears Green – Mental Health Awareness. The last time I wore it, I shook Eric’s hand and thanked him for sharing his experience with us.

The damn shirt has been there, untouched, for a year. Sometimes when you’ve got your head down, day-to-day, you forget your plans and your promises.

In my eighth year as an administrator at Western, helping students with mental health challenges and students under stress remain the most complex and difficult tasks of my job.

Academic counselors across campus report significant increases in student difficulties over the past five years. In the Faculty of Health Sciences, we try to be leaders in promoting health on campus and in the community.

In the past, we directed considerable attention to exercise and nutrition, and maintaining a balance between work, play and enjoyment in the lives of students, staff and faculty. Not enough emphasis on mental health.

But that is changing.

Events such as The Jack Project and the Margaret Trudeau lecture help to raise awareness as we attempt to promote mental health in balance with physical health or, perhaps more accurately, their deep linkages which contribute to our overall wellbeing.

Eric saw the potential in Western to be a leader on issues of mental health because of its size and location. Indeed, there are many individuals and groups across campus working to assist our students and staff, help our students in need and raise awareness about the services available at Western.

Through Campus Community Police Services; the Office of the Vice-President, Resources and Operations; Office of the Vice-Provost (Academic Programs and Students); Student Housing; Student Health Services; Student Development Centre; Psychological Services; Indigenous Services; Learning Skills Services; University Students’ Council; Teaching Resource Centre; Communications and Public Affairs Department; and the Safe Campus Advisory Partners committee, there are administrators, case workers, residence managers, residence counselors, senior leaders in residence, wellness coordinators, social workers, psychotherapists, doctors, nurses, psychiatrists who are all part of a comprehensive team ensuring mental health is a primary concern at Western.

These experts understand the complex challenges facing our students, some at high risk; they are professionally prepared to provide a wide range of services to students in need.

Our staff also understands students are experiencing unusually high levels of stress. Our role is to help students to focus on balance between their academic responsibilities, social life, physical activity – to look after themselves. Homesickness, assignment and midterm anxieties, roommate problems, poor food choices and eliminating fun activities and exercise when time is limited all create problems for our transitioning first-year students.

Recently, I thought I would address these problems head-on before mid-term exams by providing a forum for first-year students to de-stress. I called it Keeping Your Health in Mind; sent out e-card invitations; and, solicited our faculty and student leaders to share their experiences and talk about strategies to help students cope with the stresses of university.

More than 20 senior students volunteered to lead the session. Not one first-year student showed up. Lesson learned.

A student stressed out over midterm exams has no time to talk about stress – who wants to talk about private issues like homesickness with strangers? Back to the drawing board.

We have to create stronger peer networks for students who feel stressed and unbalanced. We have the facilities, services and expertise to promote wellness in our student population. We have outstanding exercise programs, intramural sports opportunities, club activities and cultural programs. We must encourage more students to de-stress through these opportunities, eat properly and get enough sleep.

In the area of mental health, Western can be a leader if we continue to adapt to student needs and continuously evaluate and modify our programs and services accordingly. We have a large team of trained professionals and many other staff and faculty who care about our students’ wellbeing.

We have to continue to de-stigmatize mental health issues.

Margaret Trudeau’s lecture will do its part in stomping out the stigma.  But we must remind ourselves to keep the green T-shirt out of the closet.

Kevin B. Wamsley is an associate dean (Undergraduate Programs) in the Faculty of Health Sciences and a professor in the School of Kinesiology.