Responding to the reality of mental health

University is filled with incredible opportunities, but the stakes are high. The decisions you make here will define your career and affect relationships for the rest of your life. Social, financial, and academic pressures build up.

The stress can be unbearable.

Help can seem hard to find.

For Austen Berlet, this stress became too much. In 2009, Austen – a brilliant student who went straight from high school into Western’s third-year Physics program – died by suicide.

He was a brother of the Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI) fraternity here on campus – the same chapter I joined in my third year of undergrad. His death rocked our fraternity. His life continues to inspire us to make positive changes for students at Western.

So often, when (or if) we talk about mental health, the conversations are hypothetical and detached from day-to-day life. But suddenly, because of Austen, the situation became personal. His passing showed that seemingly insurmountable challenges can and do happen to our brothers, sisters, friends, and all members of our family. It became important to have these difficult conversations more frequently, to remove sigma and raise awareness that none of us is immune, and to raise money to help support those who need counselling.

As his FIJI brothers, we decided to honour Austen’s life by giving back to mental health at Western. We hoped his passing could be a catalyst for change, so that no student would ever have to go through what Austen did.

This is how the Austen Berlet Campout (ABCampout) for Mental Health began. In 2010, a group of FIJIs slept outside overnight in Victoria Park to draw attention to these often-overlooked issues, and to raise money for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

Since, the ABCampout has evolved in ways its founders could only dream. Over the past nine years, we’ve raised more than $120,000 for the CMHA. Last year, this event raised more than $15,000 to fund an additional wellness counsellor at Western during the highly stressful final exam period. It’s a commitment we have fulfilled for the past three years.

This year, we hope to take ABCampout to the next level. We want more student engagement and we’ve upped our fundraising goal to $20,000.

On March 29, we are hosting a music festival in The Wave in the University Community Centre. All money raised will be donated to CMHA to support its many programs. Music is one way to circumvent a conversation few students want to have. We hope that by offering some amazing talent, including The B-Club, Del, Fox the Hound, and Fat Chance, we can bring awareness and understanding of mental health challenges to a wider group of students.

Then, the FIJI brothers will sleep outside on the Concrete Beach. It’ll be some serious fun to draw attention to some very serious business.

While I did not know Austen Berlet personally, every morning I walk past his memorial on the wall of our fraternity house. That plaque reminds me of how fragile we are, even those who seem to have it all, or be especially smart. Austen reminds me, too, why it is so important for us to figure out solutions to keep us connected to each other, and to know we have people on whom we can always depend throughout our time at university.

ABCampout is not without a larger context. All of us on campus know we’re in the midst of a mental-health crisis that’s happening across Canada. At present, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among youth in this country. While this is supposed to be the best time of our lives, the pressures students face are tremendous. We also know that every year, Western has to make difficult choices about how to allocate its increasingly tight budget.

With all this in mind, we at FIJI thought the most positive way forward in this challenging situation is to take a students-helping-students approach. We are members of the larger Western community, and we want to be good citizens. It’s important to us that we give back to others both by contributing to the counselling services we all need to be healthy and safe during our learning opportunities at Western, as well as by encouraging everyone to be open, accepting, and supportive when it comes to issues of mental health.

This year’s ABCamout will begin at 7 p.m. in The Wave. For more information on the event, to purchase tickets for the concert, and for a link to make a donation, visit our Facebook page or Instagram @austenberletcampout.

Aidan Smith Fullerton is a fourth-year student majoring in English at Huron University College. He is a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. 

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Editor’s note: Western reminds its campus community that counselling services are always available to assist faculty, students and staff. Visit the Health and Wellness website for help today.