New mental health resource helps 1st year students cope

As first-year university and college students prepare to head to class, many are worrying about how they’ll handle the new responsibilities and workload.

“I’m 70 per cent prepared mentally,” says Anureet Kaur, 17, as she packs for her move from Winnipeg to the University of Victoria.

But Kaur is also nervous about living on her own for the first time, about the academic workload and about taking on responsibilities her mom has always handled for her.

“I end up taking a lot on my plate and then I panic and get overwhelmed.”

Students have increasingly been decrying the lack of mental health resources on university and college campuses, calling it a crisis.

While statistics are hard to come by, experts estimate between two and 10 per cent of university and college students think about killing themselves. Every year, some follow through.

So mental health advocates are launching a new resource aimed at first-year students that they hope will help prevent burnout, breakdowns and, ultimately, suicides.

‘This is about prevention’

For those like Kaur who feel overwhelmed, “From Surviving to Thriving: Developing Personal and Academic Resilience” is now available online. Some schools will also hand out hard copies during Frosh Week.

“This is about prevention,” says Mary Ann Baynton, director of strategy and collaboration at Winnipeg’s Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, which created the handbook.

Research suggests 70 per cent of mental illness begins during childhood or adolescence, and among young people in Canada age 15-24, suicide accounts for about a quarter (24 per cent) of all deaths.

“It’s about becoming self-aware, learning about yourself and learning about what’s out there to help you so that when you are stressed, when you are overwhelmed, when you are in crisis, that you will be able to know what to do and know how to manage for yourself.”

‘They felt a little bit more in control’

The handbook was developed by the insurance giant based on research and was then evaluated by a number of researchers and students.

It identifies some of the stressors students may experience as they start their post-secondary education. It helps them identify personal strengths and ways to cope, and trains them to know when to ask for help.

Students fill out a checklist about their automatic reactions to stress — such as physical reactions like headaches or behaviours like substance abuse — and then find strategies to avoid those reactions.

Researcher Heather Stuart worked with 500 university students to evaluate the handbook and found it to be useful.

“They felt their coping skills had improved, that they knew what to do, they were more aware,” said Stuart, the mental health and anti-stigma research chair at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“They had taken stock of their personal support networks. They had also taken stock of what services were available to them on campus. So I think they felt a little bit more in control of their situation.”

‘We had no clue’

The resource is welcome news for Sam Fiorella, who knows first-hand the need for mental health resources aimed at young people.

Fiorella’s 19-year-old son Lucas killed himself while he was attending Ottawa’s Carleton University in 2014.

It was Thanksgiving, and Lucas had stayed at school to study for his mid-terms. But when his family couldn’t reach him for several days, they called police.

“I can still feel the pain that I had that night when we got that news. We had no clue. Lucas was a happy kid. Yes, he was a moody teenager like most teenage boys are, but he didn’t have any different symptoms or show any outward signs of depression or anxiety,” Fiorella said.

“On top of the shock of losing a child, there was the shock of not even knowing that it was potentially coming.”

At Lucas’s funeral, Fiorella kept hearing stories about how his son had affected so many people — even saving a life —by simply saying hello and starting a conversation.

So Fiorella started a project called the Lucas Fiorella Friendship Bench, a bright-yellow park bench that has been installed at 52 secondary and post-secondary schools across the country.

“It’s a reminder to students to take a minute out of your day, sit down, forget about the stress of your exams, of your work, of your family, of your boyfriend or your girlfriend,” Fiorella said while sitting on one of those yellow benches at Humber College in Toronto. “Just remember a little bit of self-love. Take care of yourself. Think about your mental health and why you’re here. Say hello.”

Fiorella says the Surviving to Thriving handbook is a great start. He says the checklists are easy to work through and the information it provides is something students need.

However, he thinks the format is a little old-fashioned for today’s young people.

“This should be a mobile app that could actually engage with them … like with a reminder, ‘Hey, it’s a good time to check in before exams.'”

Kaur said she’d like to go through the handbook — in whatever form — before university starts.

“I think it’s very important to actually know what you could be nervous about, because kind of getting surprised by it in the moment is not OK because then you can’t deal with it,” she said.

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