Supporting mental health on campus

Unsurprisingly, students are a high-risk group when it comes to mental health issues. They live with constant deadlines, the fear of disappointing grades and a volume of work that can become overwhelming – all before the demands of social and extracurricular life. Multiple studies have found a strong link between heavy social media use and an increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, selfharm, and even suicidal thoughts. Add to that, judgemental messaging like ‘toughen up’ and ‘get over it’, so often heard by people struggling with their mental health. With all these compounding issues, it is no surprise that students are so at risk. Bishop’s is, of course, not immune to these forces, but the Student Services team has been taking fervent action to tackle mental health issues on campus and make Bishop’s a place where students feel safe, healthy and supported.

Breaking Stigma

The focus on mental wellness at B.U. starts during Orientation Week, when entering students are given a comprehensive list of support services. The University’s online Student Services page also features easy-to-access information regarding everything from addiction and anger management to sexuality, gender, anxiety and depression. However, access to services is just one piece of the puzzle; stigma is often one of the biggest barriers to students getting the help they need. Harsh words, judgements and terms like ‘snowflake’ (an insult for someone who is perceived as too sensitive, often used for millennials) can be enough to keep students from using available mental health services. It is a sentiment that does nothing to help, while adding yet another layer of shame and rejection to an already overburdened psyche.

Stine Linden-Andersen is the Dean of Students at Bishop’s. Prior to taking on her current position, Dr. Linden-Andersen was a professor in the University’s Department of Psychology. With her doctorate in Clinical
Psychology and with hands-on experience as a clinician and private therapist, Dr. Linden-Andersen brings an informed and multi-faceted approach to helping students.

Dr. Stine Linden-Andersen, Dean of Student Affairs

“I don’t think previous generations fully appreciate what it’s like to be a university student these days,” she says. “We have really courageous students who enter our university environment facing a lot of challenges and barriers. Using a term like ‘snowflake’ really takes away from the courage and resilience of these students who are fighting to get a degree. We know that over half of our student population in Canada has felt hopeless in the last year. 30% to 40% struggle with mental health, yet it’s only 30% to 40% of those students who get help.”

A ‘Stepped Care’ Approach

In her role as Dean of Students, Dr. Linden-Andersen is building on the work of her predecessors in making mental health an integral part of her Student Services team’s work. “I think we’re really at the forefront of providing access for our students. We have applied a ‘stepped care’ model here at Bishop’s. This is a system of delivering and monitoring treatments so that the most effective, yet least resource-intensive treatment, is delivered first, only ‘stepping up’ to intensive/specialist services as required and depending on the level of patient distress or need. While some may need direct crisis intervention and support, there are also support systems for students just needing someone to talk to from time to time. In other words, it is having the right service, in the right place, at the right time, delivered by the right person.”

The various mental health initiatives on campus are wide and always evolving. Pet therapy during midterms, peer counselling and crisis training have widened the spectrum of support and proven popular with students and staff alike. “The stepped care approach goes hand in hand with our wonderful faculty who offer inclusive and accommodating classrooms to create a supportive environment. Many professors really want to help but aren’t sure how, and we have several ways to educate them in how to respond to a student crisis.” Support groups, started by students over the years, are another important contribution to campus mental wellness and part of the stepped care model. “These are groups that deal with things like body issues, eating disorders or sexual assault. They’re advertised on social media and anyone can show up to connect with others in a safe, non-judgemental space.” Yet another branch are the counsellors, security team and health clinic who have been trained to assess and mitigate the risk of suicide and support students struggling with suicidal ideation or behaviour. Mental wellness truly is a campus-wide effort.

“Our stepped care approach is situational,” explains Theresa Gagnon, Bishop’s Manager of Counselling and Accessibility Services. “We have a walk-in clinic model for therapy meaning students can see somebody either the same day or the next day. Sometimes you have a student who is studying, possibly playing a sport and engaging in extracurricular activities, and there may not be time to meet with a therapist weekly. In that case we
encourage them to seek out resources on their own and set them up with a counsellor if that doesn’t work out. This way they become their own agents in mental health.” She adds, “Sometimes just helping them make a plan and teaching them about stress management techniques like breathing, exercise and meditation can help make the difference. And if more care is needed, we’re there to help.”

Theresa Gagnon, Manager of Counselling and Accessibility Services

A former social worker, Theresa Gagnon is well-versed in the challenges and strategies involved in creating stable and supportive environments. Prior to becoming Bishop’s Manager of Counselling and Accessibility Services, Ms. Gagnon spent sixteen years in the public health sector, most recently at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. “My specialty is crisis and trauma,” she says. “I worked in the emergency room, and it could get pretty intense. Working with the emergency response team was a big weight to carry at times…. Working in the hospital gave me a solid foundation for what I do, but it really brought home to me the merits of a less hectic lifestyle.” When her partner received a job offer in the Eastern Townships, where Theresa had spent her early years, she says mental health was a huge part of their decision to move. This is a lesson Ms. Gagnon is committed to imparting on Bishop’s students. “I know how it feels to feel pressured by high expectations for performance and output. Our goal is to help support students during those periods and provide quick and effective engagement with them to address their needs.”

Ms. Gagnon sees change for the better regarding mental wellness. “I think that people are becoming more aware that mental health is part of a larger picture. It’s definitely an improvement in attitude that is still evolving.”

Peer-to-Peer Support

Another key to the university’s overall mental health plan has been BUnited, the Peer-to-Peer Mental Health Support Centre. This best practice strategy is working at universities across the country, and was made possible at Bishop’s by the $25,000 1980s Class Gift project launched at Homecoming 2019, and funds donated through #GivingTuesday in December 2019.

“The student unions of Quebec conducted a survey and one of the things that came up was the lack of peer support,” Ms. Gagnon says. The BUnited program provides a quick and easy-to-access support system in a low-pressure environment. “The opportunity presented by the Peerto-Peer plan is such a great response to that need. We’ve been able to hire and train five peer supporters to actively listen, provide resources and to build hope.”

Fentanyl Overdose Training

The opioid crisis has added another, potentially deadly, wrinkle to student safety. “The Townships are the second highest location in Quebec for fentanyl-related overdose,” she says. “[Fentanyl] is one hundred times stronger than morphine, and it’s being cut into street drugs like cocaine.

“When administered quickly, Naloxone can save the life of someone having an overdose. Health Services had Naloxone kits, but were the only personnel trained on how to use them. I found a master’s student in Montreal who was offering free training at McGill and went to one of the sessions. I asked him to partner with us and now we’ve trained fifteen non-medical professionals across the University to administer it.”

Psychological Wellness Committee

Finally, Bishop’s has been collaborating with other post-secondary institutions in the region to help coordinate a comprehensive safety net for students. “The University of Sherbrooke is working on a project to promote mental health in the Eastern Townships,” says Ms. Gagnon. “We created a Psychological Wellness Committee and did an audit of our services on campus at all levels. This way we can see what is being done by students, by the community and by the institution and respond to any remaining gaps. It’s a big project, working on a campus-wide strategy and creating sustainable and preventative initiatives.”

For Ms. Gagnon and Dr. Linden-Andersen, these efforts are a natural offshoot of B.U.’s tradition of student engagement, support and community. Their teams work tirelessly with students to ensure that their years at Bishop’s are not simply about getting a great education. “We want students to flourish here,” says Dr. Linden-Andersen. “I think we’re the best university in the world, there is no doubt about that. But we can always be better, and this is our goal.”

Mental Health Support in the Era of COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic has added a layer of complexity to maintaining mental health, which will make these supports even more important. Mental health research indicates that routine and structure foster positive mental health and psychological resilience. As such, the sudden closure of campus and cancellation of in-person classes, combined with worries about the virus, admonitions to stay at home and avoid social contact, and new financial worries have hit everyone hard. Students may need additional measures to protect their mental health until the health crisis is resolved and beyond, especially considering precautionary measures that will have to be taken when classes resume.

In the meantime, the Student Services team is doing its best to make sure Bishop’s students continue to have access to essential mental health services and are adapting programs as needed. For now, students have been able to access campus counseling services by online chat, video or phone and there is a strong effort to make as many resources as possible available through the website and social media.

Additional online resources pertaining to mental health are available on our website. If you know a student having a mental health crisis or who is in need of help, please do not hesitate to contact Student Services.

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