News  Strategies for student mental health shared at conference

Speakers note lack of support, harmful environment at university

Correction appended October 8, 2014.

Students, faculty members, and speakers gathered on campus last Sunday for the second annual Students in Mind conference on mental health, sponsored partially by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU). The issues discussed ranged from personal mental health to self-care, peer support, and addressing the problem of social stigma surrounding mental health.

In a panel called “Strategies for Student Mental Health,” Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) Health Commissioner and former PGSS Member Services Officer Elizabeth Cawley said that the academic culture at McGill – “where it’s okay to live in the library, to live off of Smarties and coffee” – has to change. “We need to say it’s okay to go home and sleep,” she said.

In fact, research suggests that mental well-being is a serious health challenge for students at McGill. In October 2013, McGill Counselling Service published a report in which over 40 per cent of respondents indicated that they had significant depressive symptoms, over 40 per cent reported significant anxiety symptoms, and 10 per cent said they had considered suicide during their time at McGill.

“I cannot celebrate the status quo of mental health support at McGill,” SSMU VP University Affairs Claire Stewart-Kanigan told The Daily in an email. “The University subsidizes mental health-related prescription drugs significantly more than counselling sessions and other non-drug therapy options, while students with long-term mental health needs continue to be turned away from receiving care due to the inflexibility of the number of maximum counselling sessions.” Students are limited to 15 sessions per year.

At the panel, Stewart-Kanigan pointed to McGill’s competitive environment as detrimental to students’ mental health. “There’s certainly a culture of competitiveness here that I haven’t noticed going to Concordia,” she said, referring to her experiences taking classes at Concordia.

Tanja Beck, Access Services Advisor at the Office for Students with Disabilities, also spoke to students’ role in creating a less competitive culture. “Whenever you’re with other students, it’s very important to have an open dialogue, to reflect on your own biases and your stereotypes,” she said. “[Students affected by mental health] don’t feel comfortable talking to peers or friends because they fear that they might be stigmatized, that people might turn away from them.”

Nancy Low, a psychiatrist at the McGill Mental Health Service, treats a great deal of students and has noticed that they are struggling with getting information from people who have had personal experience with mental health issues. “Once you’ve had an interaction with formal or non-formal healthcare, give back. It’s really powerful to instill a sense of hope. If you hear it from someone who’s lived it, it’s really helpful,” she said.

Stewart-Kanigan stressed that students who haven’t had personal experience with mental health issues can still make a major contribution to creating a healthier campus. “It’s also important to look at how other student groups, who are not dealing explicitly with mental health, like Indigenous Student Alliance or Queer McGill, can also help support students’ mental health,” said Stewart-Kanigan.

“Look at the groups you are involved in right now, if you are involved in a group, [think of] how you can make it more accessible to people who may be dealing with maybe social anxiety and things like that.”

Quinn Ashkenazy, a second-year Psychology student who attended the conference, highlighted the role of the conference in encouraging students to participate in actively addressing mental health issues. “This [conference] is an important starting point for getting students involved in creating change,” she said. “There are resources out there but students often don’t know about them. Promoting [them] is really important.”

Sandra Reiter-Campeau, one of the organizers of the conference, spoke positively about this year’s event. “[Last year] they started from scratch,” she told The Daily. “We hope that it keeps getting bigger and bigger every year. Last year, there were 120 attendees; this year, we had 130.”

“The big part of the conference is just starting a conversation, getting people to open up,” she added.

A previous version of this article stated that SSMU was the primary sponsor of the Students in Mind conference. In fact, SSMU was one of the sponsors, but the conference was primarily funded through a crowdfunding initiative. The Daily regrets the error.