RRC’s mental health strategy shapes up years after research completed
SAMANTHA SAMSON, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
Mental health awareness saturates social media, TV and newspapers. After a few years of research, RRC staff has told The Projector they’re going to hire a mental health coordinator — someone who’s entire job revolves around the mental health of students and staff.
Based on students’ struggles, the decision couldn’t come fast enough.
Counselling and accessibility services reported 1,700 full-time students contacted them between June 2013 and July 2014. That’s about 17 per cent of full-time students.
Of that 17 per cent, more than 100 students expressed suicidal thoughts.
After realizing the weight of the situation, RRC began a Healthy Minds, Healthy College initiative. A group of staff and community partners researched staff and students’ needs. Things like the anxiety forums in February, Mental Health week last semester and the news group counseling workshops are a result of their findings.
“One thing the initiative exposed is that we need to be less reactive about people’s mental health and not waiting until they have problems,” said Laureen Janzen, coordinator of counselling and accessibility services. “Coming at it from the front end instead of trying to help students pick up the pieces when it’s falling apart.”
Janzen was project leader for the initiative, which partnered with organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority for guidance.
The initiative came up with nine recommendations. The hiring of a mental health coordinator was the first one — and it’s officially been approved by the college for the 2016/17 budget.
Janzen said this position is crucial for students and staff.
“We’re all doing [mental health activity planning] off the side of our desk,” said Janzen. “We’re hoping to change the culture and the way we operate over time.”
Cindee Laverge, vice president of student services and planning for RRC, told The Projector in an email aproving the position “sends a strong message about the college’s commitment to supporting positive mental health both.”
With the new budget starting in July, the goal is to hire someone for the fall.
“It’s exciting and it’s totally doable because there are other colleges and universities across the country that are doing it,” Janzen said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel, we just have to tweak it to fit us.”
Mindfulness for Success
Janzen said she believes the college is improving access to mental health supports and resources — including offering alternative supports for students.
One example is the Mindfulness for Success program for first-year nursing students. The weekly, one-hour workshops started in January this year. Counsellor Vidhu Bhanot gives students like Lenay Walger tools and suggestions for dealing with overwhelming, anxious situations.
“You can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it, so that’s what we focus on,” Walger said.
Walger studied at the University of Manitoba for two years before attending RRC. The switch from theory to practice was a change she didn’t expect to have a tough time dealing with.
“I wanted to join the workshop because I was in unchartered territory — I’d never done any of these things before, so I was having trouble managing,” Walger said.
The workshops are a pilot program, tested out on first-year nursing students who might have waited years to get in. Once students finally get the call, they feel even more pressure to succeed. And with that, more anxiety, according to Walger.
Walger said the workshops have taught her to look at a stressful situation objectively, then to ground herself before moving on. She’s also learned to handle her test anxiety and focus on immediate goals rather than fearing the worst for the long term.
Mind over coursework
Integrating mental health skills into a curriculum is one of Janzen’s goals, but she’s not sure how it’ll fare with all programs.
“It would be a challenge,” she said. “Instructors have a lot of things to teach you, so when are we going to integrate it that makes sense, that doesn’t compromise the things they need to teach you?”
RRC hasn’t met all of its own recommendations, and the stigma toward mental health, Janzen said, still happens in the hallways.
“I think there are more students coming for help than every before which is great, although stigma still exists,” Janzen said. “Just because our numbers are increasing doesn’t mean that stigma isn’t out there. I believe there are a lot of students who don’t believe their problems are serious enough.”
But that’s not true for the 100 students who felt suicidal — and the many others, Janzen guesses, who don’t choose to come in for help. But she’s confident things will improve.
“I don’t have to convince anybody to buy into the need to develop a more mentally healthy campus,” she said. “It doesn’t just sound good — everybody knows it needs to happen.”
Healthy Minds, Healthy College Recommendations
1) Create an identified mental health coordinator position that promotes mental health and well- being.
2) Establish a detailed mental health work plan.
3) Develop a communication strategy that determines how to gather information collaboratively and spreads information through social media, online and on campus.
4) Improve access to mental health supports and resources, working to implement improvements;
evaluate delivery of current services, available resources, and investigate innovative and viable ways to meet the demands.
5) Expand college wide training in mental health and mental health services with a focus on reducing mental health stigma.
6) Ensure internal and external community engagement and facilitate the formation and expansion of partnerships.
7) Develop an identification and assessment mechanism that will help RRC define and articulate there satisfaction with services.
8) Establish a mental health forum or conference that involves students, staff and faculty.
9) Expand positive physical environments that promote emotional well-being like developing ergonomically appropriate work areas, incorporation of universal accessibility principles, and additional green spaces.