Change in Mind

Andrew Fenech
Friday, July 15, 2016 - 11:15am
Nicolle Wahl

Whether they’re in residence or online, U of T Mississauga students struggling with stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues have more ways than ever to get help.

Responding to a growing awareness of the mental health needs of students on campus, UTM continues to expand outreach to students who may be struggling with the symptoms and stigma of mental illness.

For example, connecting to other students with similar challenges is now as simple as logging on to YouTube.

The UTMental Health Vlogs (video blogs), created by the UTM Health & Counselling Centre, are now in their third season and feature a total of 16 students talking about a range of issues to raise the profile of mental health.

Andrew Fenech, a Mississauga native and third-year psychology and environment student, is one of the most recent vloggers. Fenech has dealt with anxiety for years, and the stress of university exacerbated his symptoms. But he credits his support system—family, friends, his doctor and his therapist—with helping him to cope and even thrive.

“I wanted to do more for mental health, because it’s talked about in abstract terms,” says Fenech. “I wanted to put faces to it—to start a conversation with students, and tell them that they are not alone.”

He says that as a first-year commuter student, he didn’t feel particularly connected to campus life and he was hesitant to get involved in extra-curricular activities. But by second year, he decided to join the environmental Green Team, and quickly started getting to know other students and professors. From there, he began to attend other campus events and connected with the Health & Counselling Centre.

Eventually, HCC health education coordinator Chad Jankowski asked Fenech to consider recording vlogs for UTMental on the HCC YouTube channel. Fenech initially resisted discussing such a personal topic publicly, but decided that he needed to push himself out of his comfort zone.

The digital space, he says, is the ideal place to reach students—for many, it provides an anonymous venue to discuss a topic that is just starting to shed its stigma. “At a personal level, people are becoming more comfortable taking about mental health.” By taking the conversation online, “we can be there for students where they are.”

The UTMental vlogs reach anyone with access to the internet, but students living in UTM residences have an additional resource. Heather Burns-Shillington joined UTM in 2014 in a new role as the Personal and Student Family Life Counsellor in Student Housing & Residence Life.

A social worker and counsellor, she is responsible for the mental health of the 1,500 students living in residence. It’s a busy role—on average, Burns-Shillington deals with a suicide crisis intervention every single day. She tries to keep wait times to a minimum—in 2015, she was able to book appointments within 24 hours and see students within three days of their request.

Burns-Shillington finds that she is busiest in September, although demand also peaks in November and March—as exams approach. The biggest issues? “Anxiety, relationships—whether it’s with family, friends or a partner—and depression or suicidal thoughts,” says Burns-Shillington.

Her clients are overwhelmingly female and primarily in upper years. Approximately 32 per cent are international.

“I usually see students on a short-term basis. If students require more intensive therapy, I work with the HCC and community supports to make sure their needs are met,” says Burns-Shillington.

Along with her counselling work, Burns-Shillington initiated Mental Health Week, and she is working to increase the number of faculty, staff and students on campus who are trained to recognize and assist students in crisis. In 2015, 87 staff and students received training in a two-day ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) workshop. ASIST teaches participants to recognize when someone may be at risk of suicide and work with them to create a plan that will support their immediate safety. She also led 150 staff and students through the one-day safeTALK workshop, which teaches participants to recognize a person with thoughts of suicide and connect them with resources they need.

Burns-Shillington also organized several ‘Lunch & Learn’ sessions on topics as diverse as addictions, religious radicalization and mental health resources in diverse cultural communities.

In a survey, students who received counselling reported that the service reduced their sadness and anxiety and increased their overall well-being and connection to residence and campus.

Burns-Shillington aims to expand the mental health services available to students in residence, by offering counselling in other languages and hiring a social work intern.

Fenech, who next year will be the HCC’s communications assistant, also hopes to expand mental health initiatives to reach students from different cultures and sexual identities.

“All of us are struggling collectively, and we should be working collectively to help each other,” he says. “Empathy is the greatest gift that I have received from [my mental health issues]. I want to show people that experiences with mental health are not a barrier to success.”