Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Post 44: Mental Health Awareness at UVic

This lunch hour I attended the first of two round table talks on Mental Health Awareness, put on by UVic's Mental Health Task Force, and it was very, very good. This talk was about Anxiety: When The Worry Won't Stop; the second, on March 18th, from 12:00-1:30, will discuss Living, Learning, and Working with a Mental Health Diagnosis, in MacLaurin Room D 010.

We started off with a really refreshing and brief meditation session, where the fellow that led the session got us all to ground ourselves, and focus our attention to breathing. For some people, it was the first time they had ever done something like that, and it was great to hear how much of a difference it made to them! I don't usually like the sitting/standing still and meditating practices; I am a meditate-in-motion kind of person, and find a lot of calm when I exercise. This is also one of the main reasons why I prefer really active yoga like flow, or ashtanga, as opposed to the slower ones like yin or meditation yoga. But for the start of the workshop, I thought this was great!

Another wonderful evening on campus! My skyline, just before catching the bus home at the end the day. 
Reflecting on the talk, this post will highlight the people and resources that I am able to recall, as well as briefly discuss a couple of the themes that arose. I was amazed by how diverse a crowd the talk drew: there were a variety of resource folks present, and it was a nice mix of internal and external resources I didn't know UVic or the wider community had. The introductions went quite quickly, so I didn't manage to remember any names, but here are the resources that I remember.

UVic Counselling Services: they run a number of workshops on stress and anxiety and managing panic, through a variety of techniques, including cognitive behavioural therapy, ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy), and mindfulness practices. Here's a link for those workshops.  A number of their counsellors can also be visited with individual appointments as well.

UVic Human Resources also had a staff person there, one of their Work Life Consultants; he expressed that if you're someone who is dealing with a mental health illness, then HR can work with that individual to sort out adjustments that can be made so their work relationship at the University can still be a positive and productive one.

Dr. Lara Robinson, a professor from the Psychology department was there, and offered a number of important advice points, and shared that she takes on a couple of clients each semester at a reduced rate, addressing anxiety mental health issues. She also mentioned that the Psychology department has ongoing studies and research relating to wellness and anxiety, so send her an email if that sounds interesting at all. From what I remember, she mentioned that you could pair up with graduate student at a very reduced rate ($10 per session) to address ongoing problems.

Darryl (sp?) who works with/at the Anxiety Clinic in Victoria also had a very strong presence during the discussion, and it was very clear that he was well versed in the science of treating anxiety disorders and issues. He described anxiety issues as "bad mental habits," which is, I think, a very good way to think about anxiety.

Lovely bouquet i put together last year; my partner loves lilies, and I loved the bright colour contrast. :) 
One of the Residence Life student coordinators was there to share his perspective on both living with and dealing with anxiety himself, and training his crew of residence advisors to help provide resources and support to students. ResLife comes into contact with about 60-70% of the first year student population at UVic, so they have an immense impact with students. I spoke with him right after the talk and it sounds like ResLife is making a big effort to make sure students are aware of their resources when it comes to dealing with mental health, and that was really great to hear. Here's a link to some of the activities they put on in residence.

There was also a lovely gal from the Meditation Club on campus there! They put on regular meditation sessions to encourage and support students with decompressing from the stress of academia. And that is probably one of the main themes that arose during the session: the importance of grounding exercises, meditation, and bringing awareness to simple things like breathing. Darryl from the Anxiety Clinic mentioned that a panic attack can be triggered by shallow breathing, which we do when we're really stressed out. So the square breathing technique can be really helpful: breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 4 seconds, breathing out for 4 seconds, and holding the breath for another 4 seconds before inhaling again.

There were a number of people from different places across campus in the crowd, some faculty, some students, some grad students like myself, as well as parents that deal with anxiety, and parents with children who deal with anxiety. I was also very pleased to see great representation from Campus Security there! One of them mentioned that they are increasingly getting calls from students, faculty, and staff that deal with anxiety and mental health issues across campus. This reminds me that I recently read about the Nelson police chief wanting to establish a Mental Health Car like the one that Vancouver has, to better address the increasing calls they see there, which I think is a phenomenal idea!

Grumpy cat pal that I encountered on one of my evening walks in Oak Bay! :)
One of the most important themes of the discussion was around normalizing these kinds of mental health issues. A lot of people deal with them, and universities breed anxiety, even for people who don't otherwise have full blown disorders or may only have one panic attack, or deal with low-level anxiety that doesn't regularly interfere with their work or daily life. So when encountering someone who's dealing with anxiety, listening to them, admitting when we don't know much about what their experience is, or being authentic and sincere when empathizing with them, and referring them to places where they do have resources is probably one of the best things we can do.

As educators, I think one of the main things we can do to reduce the stigma of mental health issues is to encourage transparency around these issues. I know in one or two of my tutorials this semester I mentioned that if students are struggling with anything (mental health, personal life challenges, other health issues, or just bad scheduling, such as 3 assignments in 2 days), they can let me know and I will do my best to accommodate their need. I've had a couple students contact me with such requests, and it seems to have made a really big difference for them.

Talking about, acknowledging, and accepting in a non-judgmental way that people can suffer from and with these often invisible issues was another of the main themes that came from the discussion, whether it was a comment from a student who has been dealing with anxiety for years, or one of the resource people acknowledging that people build these behavioural habits, which become messy when avoidance and poor relationships and communication enter the mix, too.

Whew! This post has already become a lot longer than I'd thought, so I'll end it here! I'm glad I went to this workshop, and I now know a lot more about some of the anxiety resources we have across campus and from without, and I hope that should I be in a teaching position in the future, I'll remember to at least at one point during the semester (preferably at the beginning), mention to my students that if they're dealing with a mental health issue or other issues, they can let me know and I can try to accommodate the unexpected challenges that life throws our way sometimes.

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