Mental Health Awareness Day at U of G

Friday, March 16, 2012


Mental Health Awareness Day was held on March 8th 2012. The aim of the event was to reduce the stigma associated with mental health by spreading awareness and garnering support for all those affected. The organizers informed me that a panel of speakers would address the audience for about an hour and that will be followed by a question-answer session.

It was heartening to see a huge turnout at the Rozanski Hall auditorium. The panel moderator expressed his happiness, adding that it is important to pledge support to people struggling with mental health issues.

Student organizer Shannon Stach delivered the first talk. The cheerful person that she is, it is hard to believe that she has been fighting depression for years. During her initial years as an undergraduate student at UoG, she hardly got involved in social activities, as a result of which she felt isolated and went further into depression. Even medication, such as anti-depressant pills, did not help the sinking feeling and mental pain that accompanied her depression. She finally found her calling in volunteering and peer-helper programs, when she got involved in student support networks. She also joined YouthNet, a regional mental health promotion and intervention program run by youth, for youth. Although still coping with depression, she finds peace and excitement in talking to high school students about mental health issues. She engages herself in volunteering, participating in public service events and exercising regularly.

The second speaker Keren Harvey, also a student at UoG, was very candid and frank in her talk. Her battle with anxiety disorder and depression was triggered by adjustment issues as a new immigrant to Canada, personal and family problems. Mental agony and helplessness caused insomnia, pain attacks and anxiety in the young Keren. Her road to recovery probably started with the correct diagnosis by a counsellor, combined with proper medication. She has transformed from being pessimistic to more confident and sanguine. She now volunteers in support groups, and has set time-bound goals for herself, including graduating, expanding her friend circle and giving up smoking.

The next speaker Leanne Fabris started her talk with a witty joke, ‘One in five people have mental health issues. Look at four of your closest friends. If they don’t appear to have problems, it’s probably you!’ An alumni of UoG, she participates in support groups now. Her eating disorders and behaviour problems started due to a feeling of emotional neglect and isolation. Her desire for attention, fuelled by her family’s lack of understanding of her condition, caused her to indulge in self-harm at times.  No amount of medication or therapy seemed to work, and she was suffered from mood fluctuations, suicidal tendencies and frequent visits to the hospital. Recovery started in second year of school, with help from the campus doctors, dieticians and therapists. She believes that voicing her thoughts, participating in support groups and living one day at a time have helped her cope with her problems. Leanne ended her talk with a pithy quote, ‘If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it!’

Eric Windeler, founder of The Jack Project at Kids Help Phone, addressed the audience as the fourth speaker. He explained how the project sprung from a personal tragedy of losing his grown son, unaware that he suffered from mental issues. He and his dedicated team have already conducted over 100 presentations and workshops in high schools and universities. Eric urged us all to make a commitment to mental health, beyond pledges, t-shirts and signatures. He advised us to be aware of changes in behaviour of people close to us, look for symptoms that may signal mental concern. He also urged us to share an observation with a support group or have a conversation with someone who might be suffering, so as to make a difference to peoples’ lives.

The discussion ended with an address by Dr. Briar Long, psychiatrist at UoG, sharing her experiences of working with students. She has also treated people in crisis and in hospitals. Some highlighted the following points:

1) Treatment for psychiatric disorders makes a difference, although there are biased groups of people in the media and forums who believe otherwise. By treatment, she means the holistic approach of medication, counselling, exercise, therapy and stress-relieving techniques like yoga and meditation. The key is to build hope and positivity in a person, so as to remove debilitating, harmful beliefs.

2) Any treatment, especially of psychiatric nature, takes time, tremendous patience and effort. The receiver must believe that he can overcome his challenges, and should be convinced that the treatment will actually help.

Sharing her experience, Dr. Long said that some people tend to resist treatment, believing that they do not require any professional help. Some others get desperate with the slow pace of treatment and resort to counterproductive actions such as drinking and self-harm. In extreme cases, people impulsively pursue undesirable deeds such as suicide. However, people should keep faith and make a sincere attempt at conquering their disorder.

By the end of the discussion, I was impressed by the honesty and openness of the speakers. I feel that it takes great courage and determination to accept one’s psychological challenges, confront and ultimately win over them. All speakers coped beautifully to conquer their mental health challenges and are helping others do the same.

I wish to inform readers that UoG has excellent psychiatry facilities, peer-helper groups and community support programs. They can register with the Centre for Students with Disabilities to find out more about such programs. To conclude, I think a person can triumph over any kind of disorder if they are provided with proper medical attention, social dignity, love, encouragement from friends and support groups. I left the presentation feeling humbled and empowered, ready to do my bit for the community.

Kamala Srinivasan is a student at the University of Guelph and a dedicated volunteer at thecannon.ca.

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