Saint Mary’s University in Halifax understands that mental illness is a big issue among its student body and offers extensive help for students dealing with depression so they can succeed at school and in life. Register file photo

Saint Mary’s enlists peers in mental health counselling

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  • February 28, 2016

Going crazy isn’t what it used to be on campus. Mental illness is no longer a problem of weak or immature students to be sniggered at or ignored.

At Saint Mary’s University in Halifax just shy of 1,000 students per year access the campus counselling centre out of a student population of less than 7,000.

“We are used by the students at the university,” therapist and assistant director of student services Sarah Morris told The Catholic Register. “I don’t know a school without them (mental health counselling services) and they are heavily utilized.”

Universities today know there’s no point in telling a depressed student to toughen up and get over it.

“These are biological illnesses,” said Morris. “You can’t tell someone with type 1 diabetes to toughen up. You wouldn’t do that.”

Which means that ancient folk remedies for anxiety, depression and other mood disorders are no longer recommended.

“Maybe in your day people drank for depression. What we do is try to treat depression, if that’s what they have.”

Universities don’t offer counselling services out of a nanny instinct that would shield students from human experience. Rather, they want students to get through their degrees based on their academic performance rather than their mental health.

“If students are able to deal with their mental health issues they tend to do better at school,” Morris said. “They also tend to feel better about themselves, which makes them a better employee when they work at the school, makes them a better community member as well. It makes them go on and do better things.”

The professional therapists at Saint Mary’s don’t take on the whole burden of maintaining campus mental health by themselves.

“The healthy mind” team of student volunteers help with that first point of contact with the counselling centre. Peer-to-peer counselling is one of the campus therapists’ most valuable tools.

“This generation is much better than we were,” said Morris. “They’re much more open and they’re more understanding. That peer-to-peer model has worked great.”

One of the main jobs of the student healthy mind team is to destigmatize mental health issues. If one in five Canadians experience some form of mental illness in their lifetime, why not just deal with it rationally rather than let early onset in university develop into a life-long problem?

“Years ago mental illness was viewed as something you could just get over and that very much stigmatized mental illness. So it kept a lot of people from coming forward,” said Morris.

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