We live in a society steeped in stress and anxiety.
There are unprecedented financial worries, pressures to excel on the work front and in school, and it’s a 24-7 online existence. These influences, when coupled with resource rationalization, stigma and an overwhelmed healthcare system, make it seem that help is out of reach and as a result, many individuals coping with mental health challenges suffer in silence.
Healthy Campus, a project supported by York University’s Academic Innovation Fund (AIF), is working to change that reality by promoting pan-University awareness and conversation about the importance of physical and mental wellness. Recognizing that both are major factors in academic success, the project is fostering a network of collaborations to support peer mentors, faculty, staff and the families of students, in a quest to aid student success.
“If students are well, they will have a more positive university experience. If they are not well, it is going to be much harder for them to invest in their studies or co-curricular activities; they won’t be as connected to their school,” says Healthy Campus Project Champion Leah State, coordinator of Health Education & Promotion in Student Community & Leadership Development (SCLD).
“We can’t afford not to invest in our students’ wellness,” says State.
State’s AIF project is informed by a health survey of university and college students that was conducted in 2009. It revealed that more than 90 per cent of students surveyed reported feeling overwhelmed by everything they had to do. More than 85 per cent reported being exhausted, but not from being physically active; instead, students reported they were exhausted by the effects of stress, worry and anxiety.
Initiatives such as the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Changing Directions, Changing Lives and Bell Canada’s highly publicized “Let’s Talk” campaign featuring York honorary degree recipient and Olympic athlete Clara Hughes, focus on building awareness and inspiring conversations as two important ways to reduce the stigma surrounding with mental illness.
The Healthy Campus project is turning to the University’s peer mentors to help lead York University’s own “Let’s Talk” initiative by starting the conversation with York students about the importance of wellness. The initiative is aimed at building communities of support for students.
“Students are more confident talking to other students and more likely to open up to other students because they can relate to them and they share the experience,” says State, noting that telling someone about their concerns is the first step to wellness. Future campaigns are in the works to educate staff and faculty about the importance of wellness, not only in the student community, but in their own work and home environments.
On Oct. 31, 2012, the Healthy Campus project kicked off with a mental health conference for 250 peer mentors – student volunteers who are working in health and wellness at the University. The conference featured a keynote speech by Canadian mental health activist and TED Talk participant Drew Dudley, founder of Nuance Inc.
The day’s program was aimed at building capacity within the peer leader community to support students at the University who may be dealing with mental illness, or struggling with mental health challenges such as feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, lonely or isolated. The agenda had a core focus on building awareness of the importance of wellness, not only in the general student population, but for peer mentors as well, with sessions targeted to self-care, the availability of supports both on campus and in the community and how the peer mentors can help students they encounter.
The conference was followed by a community mental health awareness initiative Nov. 5 to 16, called Let’s Talk, which focused on starting the conversation with students across the university about their own wellness. “The key messages were get informed about mental health, get started on taking care of their own mental wellness and get connected to campus and community resources that support mental health,” says State.
She stresses that it doesn’t have to be a peer health educator to have a conversation about wellness. “It might be a tutor doing supplemental instruction or a senior-level student helping another student with their science or math homework,” she says.
Future initiatives include a “York, Let’s Talk Day for mental health” on Tuesday, Feb. 12, along with ongoing work under the umbrella of the AIF Healthy Campus project to build more initiatives. York University is also building a comprehensive mental health strategy.