Program promotes mental health, resilience

Paul Mayne // Western News

Brescia University College student wellness educator Sheldon Hill hopes a new mental wellness program launched this semester will give students the tools to ‘live life to the full’.

A new mental wellness initiative at Brescia University College is giving students the tools to ‘live life to the full’ during their time at university.

Launched this semester, in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Oxford, the pilot program, Living Life to the Full, is designed to help students understand their feelings, thoughts and behaviours, while increasing their resiliency through the use of hands-on tools to mitigate anxiety, depression and the pressures of everyday university life.

“For a long-time, campus mental health has been about reacting – ‘you’re upset, now come to us,’ ” said Brescia student wellness educator Sheldon Hill.

“I really operate from the perspective if we build the skills now, we can deal with stress and anxiety better later. Mental health issues, or concerns, they’re tangentially related, no one goes through exam period without having some type of high-level anxiety, so it’s about being aware of that and learning to cope. It about getting more people building the skills before they need to use them – that resilience piece.”

The Living Life to the Full program pulls best practices from cognitive behaviour therapy and was initially constructed for the geriatric population but has since been reformatted for other demographics, including students.

Hill said he’s seen a lot of anxiety with students, which isn’t surprising considering the student experience of exams and assignments and all of the other things that life brings them. The most recent National College Health Assessment Survey notes almost 20 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students are depressed or anxious and 13 per cent have contemplated suicide.

“Students are finding it hard to regulate the emotions that are leading to suicidal thoughts because they feel very overwhelmed,” he said. “Programs like Living Life to the Full are designed to instill the knowledge and skills in students, so when and if they do start to have a tough time, they know the things they can do to regulate their emotions.”

Hill brings a background in student affairs and counselling psychology to his role, having worked in a variety of student affairs roles while at Western and the University of Calgary for a couple of years. He believes in the strengths and resources of every student, working with them to develop new insights and perspectives.

Brescia is the first university in the province to pilot the six-week long program, during which 20 first- and second-year students attend weekly, two-hour hands-on sessions, facilitated by CMHA-Oxford.

“They break it down into worksheet-based skill-building, to show they can apply it in their own life to make it meaningful. It’s important to understand how you apply it and how it makes sense for you individually,” said Hill, noting these life skills are applicable to everyone.

Living Life to the Full is just one of Brescia’s many wellness offerings under their Wellness Education Program. Smiling Minds, a mindfulness and meditation drop-in program is a newly launched student-run volunteer organization, supervised by Hill.

We are really working to promote resiliency within students.” ~ student Jessica Marson

“Obviously university comes with the stresses of academics and life and work and everything else that comes along with being in our age group,” said Marsden, a fourth-year family studies student and one of Brescia’s wellness education peers.

The Smiling Minds program runs twice a week on a drop-in basis and uses guided meditation or a mindfulness script to help students.

“Anxiety is a future-oriented emotion, so if we can give people the tools to bring them back to the present moment, even for just half-an-hour twice a week, it can be really helpful,” said Hill. “Mindfulness practice can improve self-awareness, reduce stress, anxiety, depression and sleep problems and increase the capacity to tolerate unhelpful thoughts.”

With the pilot program concluded, Hill said Brescia will be conducting assessments, along with CMHA’s evaluation, which the college will have access to, to work on the possibility of offering it next semester.

It’s been positive and we’re thinking of considering of doing it again, and perhaps for different groups as well.,” said Hill. “We just want to ensure it is hitting the target in improving resiliency within the student population.

“It’s about convincing and showing people that it can be helpful and that’s sometimes an uphill battle. I always think more is better, at least more quality programs,” he added. “A lot of people see these programs as ‘I need to be struggling to be in it,’ where I really take the perspective that you don’t need to be struggling and these are program that will prevent you from struggling in the first place.”

Meanwhile, King’s University College has developed a new Mental Health and Wellness Plan, building a King’s flavour into Western’s Mental Health and Wellness Strategic Plan developed earlier this year.

The plan emphasizes the importance of spiritual wellbeing and promoting mental wellness as part of the whole person.

“You can’t be academically successful if you are not feeling well,” Joe Henry, Dean of Students, said.

Crisis Counselling service resumes this week

Western and affiliated college students experiencing mental health crisis now have access to a confidential after-hours walk-in clinic on campus.

A collaboration between the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Middlesex and Western, the clinics are staffed by CMHA crisis counsellors with peer-support volunteers in the reception area and are free to undergraduate and graduate students.

It will operate three days a week (Tuesday-Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m.) at Student Health Services (UCC 11), as well as at King’s University College (Wemple 151) on Monday evenings. The clinics are open now through Dec. 13.